Test Taking Anxiety: How to Conquer It

by Melissa on September 20, 2010

Has your kid ever come home, tears welling up in their eyes, holding out a test they failed, feeling totally bewildered as to why they failed it?

Have you felt baffled, knowing they knew the material inside and out, wondering why they couldn’t perform?

Many people suffer from test anxiety, and man oh man is it frustrating!

I’m modifying some test taking tips from Learning Outside the Lines, a book written by two men who graduated from Brown University that graduated at the top of their class. Jonathan Mooney and David Cole felt like “academic failures” for most of their lives. Mooney is dyslexic and did not learn to read until he was twelve years old. Cole has ADHD, and dropped out of high school when he was fifteen. In this book, they share the tools they used to become “successful” in the academic setting.

To make it kid-friendly, I’m also borrowing a page from Havi Brook’s Metaphor Mouse.

Today, you’re going to learn how to have a conversation with your kids to help them “change” the lens they see the test through. They are no longer “test takers.” They are detectives.

Here’s a little spin on their tips kids should follow for every exam they take. As detectives, tell them that this is a case that needs to be solved, and let them follow in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes by following these simple steps:

1. Make sure you understand the case you are given.

Whenever you are given directions on an exam, read them once, twice, and take notes so you understand exactly what case you’re trying to solve. If a detective doesn’t know what they’re solving, it will lead them to find the wrong culprit. After they think they understand exactly what they need to do, have them call over their “supervisor” (teacher), and explain exactly what you think you need to be doing.

2. Focus on the witness.

When a good detective is interviewing a witness, they pay attention to everything: the answers the witness gives, their body language, the surrounding evidence. Transfer this to the test by focusing on one question at a time. Cover up everything above and below the question that you are working on to avoid distraction. This can be done with a blank piece of paper, but colored ones really help kids to focus on the task at hand without becoming distracted.

3. Make sure your records are accurate.

I have had so many clients whose biggest mistake was they lost track when filling in a ScanTron. One missed question, and the entire test is put in jeopardy. They need to check to make sure they are on target every five questions, just like a detective would check in with the agency to make sure they are on track and not following a faulty lead.

4. Leave no stone unturned.

Even the best detectives come up with nothing sometimes. The really great ones don’t let it get them down. They leave a dead end, and follow another lead, but they do take notes to remember to reexamine the evidence when they have more information. If there’s a problem you don’t know the answer to, skip it and mark it, and come back when something new comes into your head. But remember, focus on the next witness! Detectives always make a guess. After you’re done with the other “witnesses,” go back to those “dead ends” and make your best guess

5. Review your notes before handing them over to your supervisor.

Great detectives are meticulous note takers. They want to make sure their evidence can get a conviction. This is the time to make sure your notes are perfect. Is your name on the test? Did you answer all of the questions? Are your answers in the right place on the ScanTron? Are your written answers legible? If not, rewrite them.

When I was in freshman in high school, we all watched a video on differing viewpoints of successful and nonsuccessful test-takers. The successful ones looked at it like it was a game. Give your kids the tools to outsmart the system and test taking anxiety will seem like a bad dream.

Want more tips on making the school year run smoothly? Get 45 information-packed minutes of Melissa, Queenie and Patrick giving their best tools and techniques for free. Click here to listen.

Melissa Lubaszka is the founder of Tandem Teaching and teaches in the inner-city. She blogs weekly about tips parents can implement to enhance their connection with their children and ways to bring out their children’s inherent gifts. Contact her for a private consulting session.


Kelly September 21, 2010 at 3:58 pm

I’m just writing in to report that after reading your post last night, I applied it to my to-do list. I had ALL of these THINGS to do, and I decided to treat them like a test, and cover up all the things above and the things below, and to just play the game, pretending each task was an important clue that just might crack the case. It worked. I’m going to try playing detective with my tasks again today. Thank you!
Kelly´s last blog post ..An odd couple

Jim September 22, 2010 at 3:15 am

I really like #3. Although it may be tedious it’s VERY important!

Heather September 22, 2010 at 8:29 am

Interesting ideas. My husband is a college math professor who constantly tries to coach students about how to not totally panic and lock up the first time they see something that they are not confident about.

I am not sure that dectective work will help, but the covering with colored paper is worth passing along.

Melissa September 23, 2010 at 11:47 am

Kelly! It’s nutty, but the more I learn about how kids learn, the more effective I’m able to be with my own tasks and projects. I use the learning/motivation/learning style tricks that are effective with kids on myself. I’m glad this worked for you, too.

On a side note, I was so excited that you left a comment. I’m crazy about your site!

Melissa September 23, 2010 at 11:49 am

Jim, you’re right about number 3. It feels like a total pain, but it will make or break someone. I’ve seen it happen SO many times.