Test Anxiety 12/2/19

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

We’re approaching the end of the academic year. At the institution where I work, finals week begins on December 10. No doubt, there are a lot of worried students.

There are bad habits that work against students. It’s not uncommon for students to study themselves into a panic, stay up far too late (colloquially referred to as “pulling an all-nighter”), and take energy supplements so they can’t sleep.

When I was in college, my friend Marci (that I truly loved and wanted to spend my life with, but, alas, she ran off with a man to another college because he was, well, not me, and apparently that’s enough) and I were taking physics in the same quarter. Although we were in different classes, the final was coordinated so all sections and all classes had the final exam at the same time. We decided on one of the rooms and sat together for the test. She seemed…off, somehow. She informed me that she had not slept for, she claimed, literally two nights straight and was running on caffeine pills. If you spoke with here, she was moderately coherent, but if the conversation came to a pause at all, her eyes would widen, and you could tell that she would just drift off to, well, anywhere but where we were. I’m sure she studied sufficiently for the test (she was more intelligent than she was willing to admit to herself), but she couldn’t have done well on it.

Seriously, when studying for an exam, there does come a time that studying stops helping, and sleeping starts helping.

Through the years since Marci (damnit, now I’m going to be dwelling on her all day long) I’ve worked with many students. Among these students were several of them that seemed to show the symptoms of test anxiety. I cannot say that this is definitely the case; I’m not a psychologist, and I tested none of them, but I recall reading an interesting article from several years ago. I often would give these students that I suspected of test anxiety a little flat stone, kind of like a worry stone, or a dice because I always carry dice with me. Yes, I’m that geek.

The paper presented evidence that if a student suffers from test anxiety, then holding something in their off hand during the exam improves their test grades. I make these students promise that they won’t throw the stones at anybody (a tongue-in-cheek promise), and not to rattle it and make noise on the desk with it (with dice, I make them promise not to roll the dice during the exam) as this would disturb other students. If the teacher wants to see it, I tell them to show it…there are no answers on it.

The paper hypothesized why this helps alleviate test anxiety (I wish I knew the exact reference; I would give it here if I did). See, when taking an exam, you’re not using your entire brain (especially Marci, whose brain, no doubt, was in la-la land). The part of your brain not occupied on the test is busy telling you that you’re not good enough, you won’t do well, you can’t do it (to which I reply, “shut up, dad!”). But, when you hold something in your off hand, you’ll subconsciously begin to play with it, rolling it around in your hand, rubbing it with your thumb, just kind of fidget with it. This occupies that part of your brain not focused on the test, leaving less room for those negative comments and quieting your inner demons.

So, if you have an exam, give it a try. Worst case scenario, it will do nothing for you, in which case no harm, no foul. But I do have two stories to tell you that indicate its effectiveness, at least for some students.

Where I was the dean, I used to like to eat in the student’s cafeteria (as I do currently). This gives me the opportunity to interact with the student body casually, and if any students want to join me, I’m always happy to have them. It removes the rigidity of the formal structure and allows for a deeper connection. One day, the smaller tables were occupied, and I took a seat at a kind of longer group-table which I typically try to avoid so groups of students can eat together without the stress of my presence. Eventually, students filled in around me, a couple of them that I knew, and I started talking with one of them who complained about stressing about tests. I explained what I had done in the past, and four or five students nearby joined in the conversation. One of them was an athlete, struggling in algebra. I had no stones to hand out, but I let them all choose a dice that I had with me. A couple of weeks later, that athlete stopped me in the hallway, and thanked me, excitedly and vigorously, claiming that it worked so well that it had saved his entire grade. It was very sweet.

When I started doing this, it was at the institution where I was a tenured full professor (but for some reason they spelled it “fool”; very strange). One day a student stopped by the office to ask a couple of questions and pulled a small familiar looking stone out of her purse. I didn’t recall giving her one and asked about it. She told me that an English professor started to hand them out to every student in class, giving the same instructions that I used to give. So, apparently, the story had spread across campus.

When I gave out the stones, though, I also gave the students one more thing. I created a very uncomfortable situation for them, making them look into my eyes, and when I had their attention, I told them that I believe in them. See, that little nay-saying voice often has a face attached, like my father’s. So I would look them in the eye, and tell them that I have seen them work, I know what they are capable of, and that I know that they are smart enough, have worked hard enough, and that they can succeed. My hopes is that when that voice and face started showing up, they could replace it with my face, the face of their professor, telling them that they are capable.

Most people that fail in classes fail before the class begins. They fail because they believe they will fail, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believe in yourself. You’re sitting in that class because you have the background and the intelligence to be successful. Believe in yourself. You can do it. And you know you can do it.

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