Testing situations can be stressful due to the nature of the exam. Students know that standardized exams and classroom tests are important, which can cause the body to respond by releasing the “fight or flight” stress hormones adrenaline and cortisole. These hormones can help sharpen focus and give the drive to study, but can also lead to panic and mental fatigue.
When students struggle to understand an exam question, their physical reaction to stress can increase. They might read the directions or the question and get stuck on a vocabulary word they do not understand. Stress can lead a student to not understand which parts of the problem are necessary to answer the question. Combine this with the sustained attention required for a test of an hour or longer and the energy it requires to remain that alert, and it is more understandable that a student might mentally shut down or begin to panic.
Help Students Overcome Test Anxiety
Teachers can help students be prepared for tests. Students need to be exposed to test taking skills so they have strategies with which to approach answering the test questions. They need understand that a good night’s sleep before a major exam can sometimes be more important than a late night study session. Another preparation students can take is to eat a healthy meal or snack before a long testing session so their bodies have the resources to maintain the extended period of sustained attention.
The above preparation techniques may not be enough for a student who has a strong test anxiety or who has had multiple negative testing experiences. These students need to be exposed to testing successes to begin to counter the negative physical reactions. When a student feels any success, even a minor praise such as, “good job,” the body releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that occurs before adrenaline. Dopamine is considered to be part of the brain’s reward system for success. The more students experience success in a testing situation the more they feel the positive effects of dopamine and can begin to lessen the test anxiety caused by strong stress reactions.
Each student is different, even though students’ bodies fundamentally react similarly to stress. Building positive test taking experiences can help minimize some of the stress reaction and enable students to perform better under pressure.