Everyone knows that heart-sinking moment: you turn over the test, skim the first few questions, and draw a complete blank on how to solve a single problem. Test anxiety equally affects students of all academic capabilities and can strike at any time, even in the middle of a test that’s going relatively well. The ACT is especially stress-inducing because, for many students, it’s their ticket to college admissions and scholarships. With the state-mandated test day just around the corner, take some time now to review and practice basic strategies with your students to reduce test anxiety so that they can perform their best on the ACT.
1. Be prepared
This is one your students can already cross off the list! They’ve spent the last six weeks reviewing commonly missed content on the ACT, dispelling myths about the test, and practicing their pace on shortened versions of the ACT. They have already taken one giant step in minimizing anxiety because they know what to expect from the test.
2. Recognize it
Even just identifying the symptoms of test anxiety will help your students quickly react to it. Excessive sweating, nausea, rapid heartbeat, and strong emotions of fear, anger, or disappointment all indicate anxiety. Students can respond by practicing tips 3–5.
3. Do something
Action is the best response to anxiety. Maybe this means moving on to another problem or another passage (just remember to bubble in answers on the skipped questions). Maybe it’s popping a rubber band on the wrist. As long as it’s something physical, students can plow through mental blank-outs by taking action.
4. Deep breathing
This is good to practice ahead of time so that students don’t feel like they’re wasting more time during the test. Taking 3–5 slow, deep breaths (try counting up to four on each inhale and exhale) slows down the heart, clears the mind, and calms the anxious inner chatter.
5. Positive thoughts
Help your students create an easy mantra (“breathe and achieve,” “I can and I will,” “this is my time to shine”) they can repeat during the test, or show them how to redirect anxious thoughts into positive ones. Instead of, “I don’t know anything,” students can tell themselves, “I prepared for this and I can find the answer.” Instead of “I’m going to fail and never go to college,” they can say, “I will do my best and find a way.” Having their goal score in mind will also help them focus on just those questions that they need to answer.
6. Take care of yourself
It may be overused, but it’s true: eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercise all help the mind perform its best, which means less room for anxiety. At the very least, students should try to get seven or more hours of sleep the night before the test and eat something relatively nutritious in the morning (think more oatmeal and bananas, less doughnuts and toaster pastries). Even taking a few minutes before the test to stretch, do jumping jacks, pushups, or squats will get the blood and feel-good endorphins moving.
7. Treat yourself
Of course, achieving their goal score and qualifying for one of their dream schools is a huge reward for your students’ hard work. But it’s also good to have a more immediate celebration in the short-term. Consider hosting a pizza party or bringing in cake and soft drinks for the afternoon after the test or later in the week. Students can also dream up what would be a personal reward: going to the mall with friends, seeing the latest movie, or downloading a new game on their phone. This gives them something to look forward to after they’ve done all they can on the ACT.
What are some methods you’ve personally used or have taught your students to reduce test anxiety?