There are a few reasons each of us should pay attention to test stress and anxiety.
- It's unpleasant and painful for students.
- When it becomes too much, it diminishes student performance (as all over-stressed situations do, per the Yerkes-Dodson Curve).
- When this anxiety-to-poorer-performance trend becomes a pattern, many students begin to identify themselves as “bad test-takers.”
- This self-identification as a bad test-taker produces anti-Belonging, which starts to trigger what I call an Anti-Belonging Doom Loop (explained in the video below if you're interested).
(Not seeing a video? Click here.)
But does test-induced stress really affect that many students? In my experience, it does. The other day in class, I asked my students to raise their hand if they feel at least 1% stressed or anxious during a test. My purpose here was to help normalize struggle (Strategy 10 in my book on student motivation), and sure enough, about 80% of hands went up in each class. But I found that it lines up with my noticing over the years that a growing amount of students feel not just a little stressed regarding tests, but a lot.
So basically: test stress and anxiety is a big problem.
The good news, though, is that performance-inhibiting test stress and anxiety are solvable problems, provided that we give students the right kind of practice prior to tests.
Practice yields proficiency
Next week, I'm opening registration to my biggest teacher course in over five years. Starting Wednesday, November 15, you'll be able to grab one of the 250 spots I'm opening for the course's first cohort. (Class materials will be released in January 2024, but registration will only be open until the 250 spots are filled; to get a one-day jump on registering, sign up for the early bird list here.)
In that course, I unpack the 10 most important principles of learning I've gleaned from over a decade of reading and experimenting with the findings of cognitive science. And one of those principles is — you guessed it — practice yields proficiency.
When it comes to test anxiety, there's no better resolution method than giving students repeated retrieval practice opportunities prior to tests. Don't take my word for it — check out this fascinating study led by Dr. Ayanna Thomas of Tufts University.
(Not seeing a video? Click here.)
Here's what the researchers did:
- All participants were given lists of words and images to remember. Group A was told to study the list by looking it over a few time. Group B was required to study the list using retrieval practice. After looking at the lists, they were asked to recall any items they could and type them into the computer. They did this three times.
- Groups A and B were then randomly assigned to two conditions:
- In Condition 1, they took a test on the list items.
- In Condition 2, before taking the Condition 1 test, they were stress-induced (to do this, participants were required to give an extemporaneous speech and then answer obscure mental math problems in front of a group of peers).
Here's what they found:
- Folks in Group B performed better than folks in Group A in both conditions. (This makes sense based on what we know about retrieval practice; it's such an important concept that I cover it at length in another of the principles — “Tests are the Best” — in my upcoming course.)
- But here's the cool part: folks in Group B saw no performance decline in Condition 2, whereas folks in Group A did significantly worse in the stressed condition.
In short: using retrieval practice as a study method not only improved test performance in general, it erased the performance declines you and I often see when test stress/anxiety are present.
What's the application? Teach your students retrieval practice! Use it in your class. Incorporate retrieval practice as often as you can. Use frequent low-stakes quizzes, and explain to students why you're doing this.
It's because of things like this that my ninth grade students often come back to me saying, “I'm unlikely to use anything I learned in your world history course, Mr. Stuart, but, man, did I ever learn how to study and learn.”
Give it shot, colleague.
P.P.S. If you want first dibs on the 250 spots in my new course next week, enter your best email here. Details on the course are below:
How and When to Sign Up
- The course will open next Tuesday, November 14, for folks on the “first dibs” email list. You have to be signed up on that list to get first dibs.
- The course will open to my general email list (about 20,000 people) on November 15. You'll be notified in my regular blog post that day.
- Registering for the course gives you lifetime, asynchronous access to all the lessons.
- All lessons will be posted by January 2024; sign up in November, plan for time to take the course in the new year.
How Many Spots There Are and How Much It Costs
- The first cohort will be open to only 250 folks, and those folks will receive an exclusive discount on the course's price.
- The list price of the course will be $249 per person, but folks in the first cohort will only pay $199.
- I've taken all the science and reduced it into the 10 timeless principles that help me most as an educator.
- For each principle, I'll unpack three practical and powerful classroom applications that are useful across the content areas.
- As always, it's made by a teacher — me — for colleagues like you.