The key to overcoming test anxiety is deceptively simple. Rather than discussing anxiety in an abstract way, treat it as a concrete skill.
Students can work on overcoming test anxiety in the same way that they work to improve their math or reading skills. It’s not enough to tell students, "stop thinking negative thoughts." We have to help them practice the thoughts that lead to success. We do this in a variety of ways, from teaching kids to free-write their worries to something we call the “mean tutorstrategy,” which is one of my personal favorites.
In order to implement the mean tutor strategy, we begin by talking to kids about the cognitive triangle. This is the idea that our feelings are affected by thoughts which in turn affect our behaviors. We then generate a list of negative thoughts that get in the way while the student is taking a test, such as:
- “I’m not fast enough.”
- “I’m not good at tests.”
- “I’m stupid.”
- “I stink at math."
- “One foot in front of the other.”
- "I'm going to use my strategies."
- "I'm prepared for this test."
- “I can do this.”
The student is assigned a set of problems to practice. While the student is working, the tutor will say out loud, “you know you’re not good at tests.” The student will then reply with one of their new positive statements: "I'm prepared for this test." As the student goes back to work, the tutor will continue: "You're not fast enough." The student will then reply, "One foot in front of the other. I can do this." The two of them will continue this dialogue until the student has finished their set of practice problems.Though we call this the mean tutor strategy, the tutorisn’t actually being mean. He or she is simply reciting the student’s thoughts aloud, giving the student the opportunity to practice responding. The student counters each negative statement with a new positive statement. In this way, the student is practicing overcoming anxiety the way he or she would practice any other skill, rather than accepting their negative thoughts as the truth. With enough practice, the negative thoughts that create test anxiety can be replaced by positive and productive thoughts.