Tests help us assess students’ comprehension and skills, but they can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety. To help students destress before taking a test, try one or more of the activities below.
Whether you work with elementary, middle or high school students, there’s always a way to help them feel even slightly better about an upcoming test.
1. Dear self
Have students write a letter to themselves, and ask them to either describe a time when they didn’t do well on a test or describe the mistakes they often make on tests. Once they’ve identified the issues that trigger their test anxiety, have them write down reminders of how to prevent or work through those types of errors or missteps. This shows them they are capable of creating a plan of action and learning from mistakes.
Right before the test, have students silently reread their letters to themselves and then flip them over to write down concepts, formulas or terminology that will be on the test. This will activate their minds and prime them right before it’s go time.
2. Word rock
Help younger students get focused by having them each paint a small rock and write a word on it — or you can write it for them. Ask them how they feel when they have to take a test and talk about how to face those feelings.
Some might feel really nervous, so they can pick a color that’s calming to them and write the word “calm” or “focus” on it. Others might be afraid of not doing well, so they can pick a color that makes them feel bold and write the word “confidence” or “believe” on it. Let them get creative so their rocks really fit them.
On test day, pass out their rocks and have them take some deep breaths while holding their rocks. This helps harness their energy and begin with a positive mindset. Remind them that we all have a mix of emotions; we simply have to find a way to cope with the negative ones and keep our eyes on the task at hand.
During the test, let them hold the rock in their hand or have it on their desk (whatever you prefer) as a positive reminder. But make sure to retrieve the rocks after the test if you want to make this into a routine with big tests.
3. Doodle & music
Give students a short, well-defined break from studying and let them listen to music and doodle. You can either choose the music or let students listen to their own on their devices if that’s permitted. Either way, this can help them unwind for 10 or 15 minutes, giving their brains a break from reviewing or cramming for the big test.
Doodling has no expectations or pressure, but if students want an alternative they can color or write. Regardless, it helps them do something creative that keeps their minds active yet not overworked or overstimulated.
Playing music while doodling can greatly influence their mood, and a positive or negative mood can really influence how focused they are and how confident they feel. Although classical music is not typically a favorite among youth, studies have shown that it can help increase concentration, so you might want to try this out with your students — unless you think it might increase their stress.
Getting students out of their seats and stretching can help increase blood flow and alertness. Set aside five minutes of stretching before the test, and don’t be afraid to throw in a few simple yoga poses like the tree pose to encourage balance and calm.
If you have young students who need to get their wiggles out, have them run in place, skip with an imaginary jump rope or do 10 jumping jacks before doing stretches. Just make sure not to wear them out or they’ll collapse into their chairs and want to sleep instead of taking the test.
Telling a few test-related jokes or a funny story can release endorphins, improving their moods and helping them feel more at ease before the test. If you don’t have your own material, find some funny comics relating to the test subject, pull up a YouTube clip or have them do Mad Libs with partners so they can create their own fill-in-the-blank story that makes them laugh. Making time for these kinds of antics can lighten the load and remind students that you care about their well-being.
Transitioning from this light-hearted moment to a test can be a bit tricky, so it’s best to not let it go on for more than 10 minutes. You’ll want to give students a bit of a pep talk leading into the test vs. abruptly shifting from laughter to serious, test-taking silence.
6. Easy ‘test’
If you have a classroom full of older students who are really nervous about an AP exam, the SAT or an English proficiency test (or something similar where the stakes are high), give them an easy “test.” Create a test with 10 questions that you know they all know the answers to, as a way of showing there was a time when they didn’t know these items they now consider obvious.
They can be questions like “What does U.S.A. stand for?” or “What is 2+2?” They will undoubtedly laugh at this, but it can lead to an important conversation. Together, you can talk about how at one time those questions might have been difficult, how our brains store knowledge, how we build on those fundamentals to advance, and how a test can only show some of what you know on a particular subject that’s demonstrated through a particular test format.
This can help them see the bigger picture so they don’t measure their worth on a single test score and instead recognize that this is one measurement that may be important and also anxiety-inducing, but it’s all about putting it in perspective.
Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and an MEd from University of California-Santa Barbara. She has worked with adolescents for a decade as a middle school and high school English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, and a curriculum designer for high school and college courses. She works with 13- to 19-year-old students as a project manager of a nonprofit organization.