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Supporting students who struggle with test anxiety

  • Sarah Smith
  • February 24, 2022


Up to 40% of all students struggle with test anxiety, according to a 2010 study published in Educational Psychology. Test anxiety is anxiety surrounding tests or exams and can affect everyone from kindergarteners completing their first assessments to professionals taking licensing exams.

What is test anxiety?

The American Psychological Association categorizes test anxiety as a type of performance anxiety, which is “apprehension and fear of the consequences of being unable to perform a task or of performing it at a level that will raise expectations of even better task achievement.”

Most commonly, students are fearful of not performing well on a test, resulting in a low grade. However, some students may be afraid of doing too well on a test. If they score higher than usual, this could cause them to worry that their teachers will expect them to score high on every test. What if they can’t live up to that expectation?

This fear of failure (or success) isn’t the only cause of test anxiety. Licensed therapists from Choosing Therapy shared several causes for test anxiety, including:

  • Fearing failure
  • Lack of preparedness or awareness
  • Poor testing history in the past
  • External pressures
  • Unrealistic fears
  • Other anxiety symptoms/another anxiety disorder

For students who suffer from test anxiety, it can feel inescapable because they will be taking tests and exams for the duration of their schooling. U.S. public school students take an average of eight standardized tests per year and countless teacher-facilitated tests — that’s more than 100 standardized tests from kindergarten through high school.

What are some of the effects of test anxiety?

Test anxiety is more than nervousness surrounding school assessments and has symptoms similar to those of general anxiety:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Feeling lightheaded or faint
    Source: Healthline.com

Test anxiety can also have an impact on a student’s academic performance. The Guardian reported that students who struggle with test anxiety are “more likely to procrastinate and be less able to cope with everyday pressures of school.”

So how do we help students who are struggling with test anxiety? Oftentimes, anxiety is a barrier to academic success because a student may have a good understanding of the course material but struggle intensely with test-taking, which often makes up the bulk of their grade.

Tips for helping students with test anxiety

We asked our Academic Coaches to share some tips they give students who struggle with test anxiety. Academic Coaches work with students daily by creating individualized learning plans, monitoring pace and progress, and providing encouragement and support.

“I usually use three strategies: 1) Preparation: Prepare as best as possible using test guides, materials, and resources that cover the subject matter, etc. 2) Organization: Prepare a study plan and checklist and stick with it! 3) Practicing relaxation techniques: Deep breathing, meditation, and other mindfulness practices help calm anxious nerves.” — Temmy O.

“I tell students who have test anxiety to make mock questions that they think they could see on the final exam and ask their Local Advocate or Academic Coach for 5-10 minutes to ask practice questions to help ease their anxiety.” — Jazmine L.

“To reduce testing anxiety, I always encourage my students to try and sleep well the night before they are planning to take a final exam. I also tell them to reach out for help if they feel like they need to have a better understanding of the material being covered on the exam.” — Jesus Z.

“What I share with students who express test anxiety is pretty specific to Graduation Alliance’s policies, but it always ends up being a huge help for students! I remind them that they are allowed two attempts on their final exams and that if they still aren’t passing their final exams after two attempts, they will be provided with alternative options — raising their overall grades to 80%, completing an alternative essay given by their teacher, etc. Once we remove the “make or break” mentality students seem to have about finals and take away the belief that final exams are their only way to earn credit for their classes, students become much more comfortable with taking those tests.” — Brayden D.

Graduation Alliance’s approach to test-taking

Students who take classes through Graduation Alliance struggle with test anxiety, learning disabilities, and personal challenges — just like students who are in a traditional setting. In an online learning environment, it’s key to have a multi-tiered system of supports to ensure that students feel prepared to take their final assessments.

Students receive support from an Academic Coach, a Local Advocate, and their teachers. The Academic Coach and Local Advocate take some of the burdens off of a traditional teaching role, allowing our teachers to focus fully on the curriculum, preparing students for final assessments, and helping them understand course content.

For more information about Graduation Alliance’s dropout recovery programs, please fill out our request for information form.