Math Fear: Overcoming Test Anxiety

In this article we will be discussing overcoming test anxiety. In previous articles in this series, I have discussed the math myths our society has extended, and how these misconceptions affect how kids approach the learning challenges in math class. Also, overcoming this anxiety when completing assignments at home is essential in coping with the emotional block of thinking the student can’t “get it” and will “never get it”.

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It has been said before that to truly conquer your fear you must put a name to it and understand it. On many levels, the anxiety that students feel walking into a math test situation becomes irrational. The honest concerns they may have had about the classroom material that will show up on the test get blown up to major emotional blocks that understandably affect their performance. To ease the intensity of this perception, it is essential to really understand what has led up this point. With the help of parents, classroom teacher, online tutor (any patient listener will do!) students must think about when this problem started. What has happened in the past to form the belief that the fear is insurmountable, unsolvable? What have the true results been on past tests, in other curriculum areas? What steps has the student taken to deal with overcoming test anxiety?

As mentioned in the other articles in this series, contributing factors are the myths and misconceptions people have about math in general. This is a cultural, societal bias that seems to be more prevalent in math than in other areas of study. Unfortunately, students grow up immersed in this unfriendly environment and start to believe the math myths. Again, with help from a sympathetic listener, students over time should come to realize that fear about math class and math tests are irrational. Concern and nervousness about an upcoming test is normal and can be dealt with. Keeping the anxiety level at a controllable level is the first step to being ready for their upcoming exam.

The next building block to overcoming test anxiety in math class is to be prepared. Of course, this is common sense advice, but it gets forgotten if the student has elevated this concern from an “I’m not ready” level to an “I can’t do it” or “I’ll never get it” level.

In the second article of this series I discussed how to deal with homework issues. If students have improved their use of homework time and maintained higher quality standards for their assignments, they will be better prepared for tests. If they have not been doing their homework because of “math avoidance”, test environments will continue to be a huge challenge.

Given that students are able to dissipate the stress level by understanding their fear, and they have put in the effort on homework, now what can they do on test day? Using smart test-taking strategies is the final piece of the puzzle.

To be a more effective test-taker, students must be able to use the time given effectively. Looking at the clock and worrying about the time will just add to the anxiety level. Here are some more suggestions for overcoming test anxiety:

1. Take the time to look over the entire test in the first 5 minutes to get a sense of what concepts are covered and what format the test uses.

2. Mark up the easiest problems and the hardest problems.

3. Do the easiest problems first in order to gain confidence.

4. Get to the average level problems next, keeping in mind to move on if feeling stuck.

5. Save the hardest ones for last.

6. Finally, try the ones you skipped. Use smart guessing strategies only as a last resort. Proofread for small mistakes.

7. Feel proud that you did your best!

Students need to be physically prepared to sit down at a test and do their best. Drink adequate water the day before, and bring a water bottle at the test site to stay properly hydrated. The day before the test and the morning of test day, students should have eaten nutritious, high energy foods without too much sugar and salt. (Potato chips and corn chips, high sugar and caffeine drinks are never a good idea!) The student should have had plenty of sleep the night before also.

As students get ready leading up to the test, they must find out what other resources they are allowed during the test. Will the teacher allow notebooks, note cards, past assignments, or study sheets or problem examples? If so, get them organized and ready; reread or rewrite them as necessary. Work with other students in study groups, or use an online tutor and discuss examples similar to the ones you think will be on the test. This preparation time and effort will pay off!

Math fear is a common experience for all of us. What is not common, however, is letting it handcuff us to the point of freezing up and blocking our ability to solve the problem for ourselves. Suffering in isolation is not the answer; avoiding the subject cannot work; not seeking help won’t get rid of the problem, either. By discussing with others who can listen, students can eventually understand that math anxiety is common and solvable. Using intelligent strategies when doing homework, and putting in the effort to prepare for tests will result in increased self-confidence and overcoming test anxiety.

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