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Using Classroom Culture, Test-Taking Skills, and Mindfulness to Overcome Test Season Stress

Testing season comes and goes every school year, and each year, it brings a mixture of emotions and challenges for both educators and students. This year is no different. In fact, it is actually providing some never-before-seen stressors centered around the uncertainty currently looming over testing season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To help you calm fraught nerves and ensure that students are successful with high-stakes exams, we’ve put together our favorite tips on cultivating a productive classroom environment, teaching effective test-taking strategies, and leveraging mindfulness as your test-prep secret weapon.

Set the Tone for Testing Success

Your students are always playing “follow the leader,” even when they don’t realize it. As an educator, you spend a lot of time with your class, and students will naturally look to you as a model for behavior. If you let stress get the best of you during standardized testing season, there’s a good chance your students will mirror that stress. Here are four ways to make your classroom (whether that’s virtual or in-person) a low-stress environment.

1. Build trust

Every educator knows that relationships are at the core of teaching and learning. By focusing on those close relationships with your students throughout the school year, you’ll build up trust that can make the testing season a much smoother time of year. Ensure that students are clear on classroom expectations, and avoid surprising them with unexpected quizzes or assignments. When students know they can count on you and can go to you with problems, those are the first steps toward a positive classroom environment.

2. Admit that test stress can be a problem

Test anxiety (especially this year!) is a real thing, and it’s OK to talk about it with your students. Ask students how they’re feeling about upcoming exams, and acknowledge it. Bear in mind that test anxiety won’t look the same in any two students, so make sure that you’re familiar with all the symptoms. Keep an eye out for physical or behavioral signs, and take the time to understand the sources of different students’ stress. It’s also beneficial to make it a priority to communicate with classroom families, caregivers, and other school staff about test anxiety and the impact it has on student performance during standardized testing. The more support you can offer students, the better their exams will go.

3. Keep things in perspective

In the grand scheme of things, no single test is going to define students’ academic careers or have that significant of an impact on their future. After all, it’s just one test. As an adult with years of life experience, chances are you can grasp this reality more easily than your students. So, make it a priority to share this perspective with your students regularly, and offer plenty of gentle reminders that no test defines how smart, successful, or worthy they are. It may also be helpful to acknowledge how proud students should feel that they have continued to make progress during an incredibly challenging school year, unlike one anyone has experienced before.

4. Maintain positivity

A little positive thinking can go a long way. Instead of focusing on all the material that still needs to be reviewed (or how tough this school year has been), remind your students that you believe in their abilities and encourage them to apply their best effort. As test days approach, keep the mood light in your classroom by infusing fun into review exercises, celebrating students’ hard work, and making time to ask students about life outside of school.

Focus on Effective Test-Taking Strategies

Test-taking is, without a doubt, a skill that can be learned. And by treating it as such in your classroom, you can help students overcome self-doubt and do their best when the testing day arrives. Make time in your test-prep schedule to focus on these test-taking strategies in addition to standard content review.

  • Work with students to build a personal study schedule
  • Familiarize students with the format of the test, including technology-enhanced items they may encounter
  • Help students break down complicated questions or problems into discrete tasks
  • Introduce mnemonic devices as a way to help students remember terms and concepts
  • Coach students to read each question entirely before answering
  • Focus on time management, and encourage students to skip over questions they don’t understand and return to them at the end of the test as time allows

Take Inspiration from Mindfulness Approaches

Undoubtably, this is not the first time you’ve heard about the value of mindfulness when it comes to managing stress. Simple strategies, both while you’re preparing for tests with students in the classroom and when students are actually taking their exams, can go a long way toward ensuring that students are able to fully demonstrate their knowledge. Here are six of our favorite mindfulness strategies to start with.

1. Create a “calm down spot”

Designate a quiet corner in your classroom where students can go when they need to take a few moments to calm their anxiety. Make sure that your “calm down spot” has comfy seating, and stock it with sensory items like fidget spinners, stress balls, and headphones for calming music. You can also hang up posters with breathing exercises or keep a stack of reflection sheets for students to journal about their feelings. If your students are learning virtually from home, suggest to them and their families that they make their own “calm down spot” where they can go if they need a moment.

2. Show students how to breathe mindfully

Focusing on breathing is so simple and effective. Teach students some basic mindful breathing exercises that they can use anytime, anywhere (including during tests!) to help them calm down and be more present. Even having students simply place a hand on their stomach to observe how it expands and contracts with their breath can have a significant calming effect.

3. Lead guided meditations

Guided meditation can be a great tool to help students calm down and focus on the task at hand. Try leading your students in a simple, short (5-10 minute) guided meditation to kick off test review sessions—you can even incorporate some visualizations of what success on their upcoming test will feel like.

4. Encourage mindful coloring

Not every moment of the school day needs to be dedicated to intentional review and test preparation. Coloring, especially using mandalas and other pattern sheets, can be a great way to give students a mental break, decrease anxiety, and improve focus.

5. Come up with a mantra

We all have a continuous stream of self-talk, and that inner monologue can have a huge effect on stress levels. Working with your students to come up with a classwide or personal mantra to use during their test can be a great approach to help students manage their thoughts, maintain that critical positive attitude, and stay focused.

6. Motivate students to move

Humans aren’t designed for endless hours of sitting at desks—so is it any surprise that students tend to get anxious and fidgety in the classroom? Try incorporating movement into your classroom routine when preparing for tests to give students a much-needed break.

2 thoughts on “Using Classroom Culture, Test-Taking Skills, and Mindfulness to Overcome Test Season Stress

  1. Excellent material nd suggestions to support our students. Mindfulness should definitely b part of our everyday teaching, not just a stress-management tool. Creating self-knowledge and control through mindfulness practices to develop awareness in the learning continuum would bring about great results in boosting student development/growth and a positive classroom culture.

    1. Dear Lila, thank you for taking the time to comment and letting us know your thoughts. We agree that mindfulness practice should be part of the everyday classroom experience and echo your observation about the positive impact on school culture. It can make a significant difference in how students feel and help build their resilience. It’s something we’re very interested in and entirely support.
      Thanks again, it’s great to hear from you!
      Best wishes, Sammy

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