For students, it’s normal and even somewhat healthy to feel nervous about test taking.  Healthy nerves can help a student take specific measures for success such as sleeping well, studying and eating a nutritious breakfast the day of an important test.  Unfortunately, nearly 40% of the student population suffers from test anxiety, (American Test Anxiety Association, Dr. Richard Driscoll), which may often leave them feeling defeated, disappointed and disconnected from their education. 

Test anxiety is different from “normal nerves” in that it can be debilitating and often results in underperformance.  “Excessive anxiety can result in test failure, leading to excessive worrying or rumination (negative cognition) and an inability to concentrate further resulting in poorer academic achievement (Szafranski et al., 2012).”    

Affecting students on three different levels: physically, emotionally and behaviorally, test anxiety is not only difficult to avoid, but also takes a toll on a student’s academic success.  Let’s cover the three ways test anxiety can negatively impact a student. 

The physical symptoms of test anxiety are palpable and can appear in the form of a fast heart rate, nausea, upset stomach, headaches, faintness and shortness of breath.  In more extreme cases, the physical symptoms of test anxiety can lead a person to panic and feel as though they are dying.  

Emotionally, test anxiety works to enhance negative feelings that are already prevalent in the mind.  Fear, disappointment, regret, feelings of failure and a lack of confidence can lead a student toward giving up their academic career entirely. 

Finally, behavioral symptoms often occur when preparing for or taking a test that is causing a student anxiety.  Symptoms include, a lack of concentration, feeling distracted, avoidance from preparing for a test, boredom and fatigue while studying, a lack of sleep the night before a big test, blocked thoughts while taking a test as well as feeling frustrated or impatient afterward.  Behavioral symptoms are closely tied to thoughts that precede the behaviors and these thoughts often tell a student that they aren’t as smart as others or that they don’t have the ability to be successful.  Those thoughts and feelings play off of one another, triggering a spiraling loop. 

There are many causes of test anxiety, ranging from learning differences to fear of failure.  At the root of it all is mental wellness and effective decision-making, which ties into social and emotional learning (SEL).  “Studies have shown that emotionality, a classically conditioned reactive response to a threat, can be counter-conditioned using relaxation, mindfulness, and breathing techniques, along with study skills and SEL strategies to reduce test anxiety and improve test scores (Aritzeta et al., 2017; Bradley et al., 2010).”

Recently, it has become common practice for schools to use SEL in order to adequately prepare students for life, which is why it’s crucial for teachers to have the necessary tools in order to develop mental health strategies and evidence-based approaches for their students.  According to research, many students don’t get the help they need due to “(a) access barriers such as insufficient information about potential assistance and (b) personal barriers such as shame or lack of time for time-costly interventions.”  

With social and emotional learning available as a viable option for all students, test-anxiety can be combated through mental health approaches in conjunction with academic preparedness.  Many of the smartest students fail to see their potential and find their professional path because of test anxiety.  Many students aren’t taught the appropriate skills needed for success and they don’t know how to talk themselves down with coping strategies when the spiral begins.  Educators need to be able to identify test anxiety and offer solutions that can lead students to their academic potential and ultimately, to their success.  

The best SEL programs do their job and allow the educator to do theirs, which is to teach.