I understand it in class, and I get my homework right, and on the test I freeze. I forgot my name. My blood froze. I could feel it running through my veins with little ice cubes in it. I could feel the little ice cubes bumping along. I remembered how to do it as soon as I walked out of the test room.
What can a teacher do to reduce test anxiety? Here are some suggestions:
No surprises: Make a deal with your students that there will be no surprises on the test. If you use a pretest, it will look like the real test; if you say what kind of questions will be on the test, those questions will be there, in the shape and form they expect. There will be no surprises with the language. If you use the term "reduce" in class, then the test will say "Reduce these fractions" not "Write in lowest terms." If you ask in class, "What is the value of x?" the test will say just that, not "Evaluate."
Teach test strategies: Ask someone to come to class to give a session on studying for and writing tests, or give a session yourself. One strategy I learned in such a session is that when you are studying for a test, you do what the test will ask you to do. So when studying for a math test, you do examples of the kinds of problems that will be on the test. You don’t study for a math test by reading your text or watching someone else do math, because the test will not ask you to read about math or watch someone do it. The test will ask you to do math so you study by doing math!
Encourage students to ask questions during the test: This practice has saved me many times, after I’ve let a typo get through without noticing it, or a dirty photocopier has put in a decimal that I didn’t mean to be there. After the first student notices my mistake and asks me about it, I can correct it for everybody. Of course, I don’t want to help people do the math on a test—that is their job. However, I want them to be able to show what math they can do, and if they don’t understand my instructions, or find an impossible question, I want to clear up the misunderstanding so they can go ahead and do the math.
Offer students a chance to do the test privately: Karen Burns reports that at such private test sessions, she begins by reading each question to the student, and then writes down what the student tells her to write. Later she reads the question and the student takes over the writing; she lets this happen on the student’s schedule. Soon, she says, the student says s/he no longer needs to do tests privately. In her experience, most students say they want to take tests in the usual way after only one or two private writings, although one student needed to take four tests privately in this manner.
I’m bored. I’m tired of this. I feel blah!
I have a rule in my class, that I follow myself: Refuse to be bored. I find it very useful to encourage students to say when they are bored, and to refuse to be bored in math class. The rule introduces something new. Generally, they expect to be bored in math class; for many, a mix of fear and boredom is exactly their experience of math class. So, when I ask them to commit to saying it out loud when they are bored, and suggest that math class should be exciting, or at least interesting, I have changed their expectations.