At a long-ago birthday sleepover for my son, I was amused that six of the seven mothers of the invitees formed a queue to accomplish the clandestine hand off of the magical nose drops that were, at that time, the latest cure for bedwetting. I was both surprised and saddened by the prevalence of the problem among our young buddies, and I almost wished we could just have a little support group then and there. It certainly would have simplified the discreet administration of the “allergy drops” that I had stowed in the extra fridge in the laundry room.
I often think of that evening at the beginning of a new term as student after student seeks a private moment to anxiously confess, “I have terrible test anxiety.” Unfortunately, these sufferers do not bring magic nose drops to treat the malady. At first, I minimized the problem. “Of course you do! Everyone does. Perfectly natural. The best cure is good preparation for the test.” After all, back in the day when men were men (and women tried to be men…at least in the sciences!), we expected to feel anxious. We thrived on the white-knuckle adrenaline surge that accompanied a surgery oral exam, and then celebrated surviving the ordeal in ways that I remember fondly, if somewhat shamefacedly, to this day.
Gradually, I began to realize that what my students were describing was NOT the same thing. A student who had an apparent good grasp of the terms and concepts in anatomy and physiology, who could ask pertinent questions of me, who could explain the terms to other students, would simply come unraveled when faced with an exam, particularly the practical component that required them to identify organs or tissues on the spot. What on earth was the problem? And how could I help them?
The February 11, 2013, issue of Time magazine features an article by pleasureinlearning favorite Annie Murphy Paul entitled “Relax, It’s Only a Test” that explores many facets of test anxiety and discusses the efficacy of various interventions. Ms.Paul’s piece includes the following paragraph:
“One step all students can take to improve their performance on tests is to change how they study for them. ‘Many students have every reason to be nervous before an exam, because they haven’t prepared adequately and don’t know how to do so,’ notes Damour, the psychologist at Laurel ‘Then they sit down to take the test, and they freak out because they’ve never practiced doing what the test is asking them to do.’ Reviewing class notes and textbooks can familiarize students with the material on a test, but it doesn’t help them take the exam. Damour suggests viewing a test more like a play, with the preparation as a dress rehearsal that replicates the format and time limit of the exam. ‘You would never just read over your lines and then show up on the opening night of the school play, right?’ she says. ‘It’s the same thing with a test. To be ready for it, practice doing what you’ll have to do in the test-taking situation.'”
I have found that having my students make a mock practical for one another helps them to become more comfortable with that type of testing while also providing some genuine active learning in the classroom.
It encourages them to hold the models in their own hands and to find the pertinent tissues under their own microscope lenses. A mock practical also encourages them to become part of the group. I often hear plans for out-of-class study groups being made. And they usually pose more challenging questions to one another than I might ask.
Ms. Paul’s article offers other possible remedies for test anxiety, and we may explore these in subsequent posts. In the meantime, we’d like to know what you think. Is test anxiety just the curse-of-the-week? Should we try to help those who identify themselves as afflicted? And if so, what is the best way to help?