How Being Stressed Can Change Test Scores

by | Apr 12, 2022 | Teaching Strategies, Test Prep | 0 comments

Last week on the blog we looked at how stress affects the brain. Today we are going to discuss how stress can affect test scores. 

Before we begin, a quick review on how stress changes the brain. When you get scared, shocked, or stressed you go into your “alligator brain”. Your “alligator brain,” also known as your amygdala, is your fight or flight response, which protects your body.

Students need to understand that this process is natural and that they can’t prevent it once they feel stressed or become frightened. That’s why it’s important for students to relax and not go into a test feeling stressed. Once they get stressed, the amygdala takes over and cuts off the thinking part of our brain. So even if students know all the answers, they can’t access them. 

Have you ever had a time when you got nervous and couldn’t remember something even though you knew you knew the information, then later, the information suddenly came to you?

The reason you realize you remembered the information is because you relaxed and your “thinking” brain could function again. 

This is why we need to teach students how not to stress out over tests – or how to calm down if they become anxious.

Let’s talk about a few ways we can teach students how not to stress over tests.

Ways To Prevent Students From Stressing About Tests

1. Teach Students How The Brain Functions (Knowledge Is Power) 

I always taught my students about the brain. It was a quick lesson I did at the very beginning of the year – I walked through just what we just discussed about the amygdala. It doesn’t take long for kids to understand it. 

I’ve always believed that knowledge is worth a pound of cure. It is helpful for your students to know why they get stressed and how that stress affects them. This knowledge can prevent stress because students realize that it isn’t that they are dumb – it is a natural process.

2. Teach Students Ways To Destress

How can we help kids prevent stress? We talked a bit about this last week but I think it is worth repeating.

It’s important to teach students what to do if they begin a test and realize they are getting anxious and nervous.

Teach Breathing Techniques

It is better for students to kill a minute doing breathing techniques and getting their anxiety out of their bodies so they can continue. Teach students how to take deep breaths to calm down. 

Teach Visualizing 

For some students visualizing works very well. Close your eyes and think of your favorite place like Target or the beach. Think of this happy place until you calm down again. Like with breathing techniques, it is better for students to “waste” a minute visualizing than feel anxious throughout the test. 

3. Explain The Purpose Of Testing To Students 

Many students feel like test-taking is a “gotcha” moment. They can feel at times like, “They are trying to catch me not knowing this.” 

In reality, what testing should be for is for parents and teachers to know what our students know and what they don’t know. What did they understand? What didn’t they understand? 

The real reason we test students is so we can support them with their learning. I explain to my students that the test is not me trying to get them or make them do badly. And when they truly understand that, it can help relax them, as the pressure is off. 


4. Stop Focusing On The End Grade

This might be the toughest thing for us to do, but I think it is really important. We have to stop focusing on the final grade. 

The grade is not the end all, be all of what your student has (or hasn’t) achieved.

Part of why grades are held at such a high standard is our culture. In other cultures, As are hardly ever given out or 100s or whatever they call them. In some places, a C is average, a B is above average and an A is exceptionally above average. 

I think we have to stop saying “you didn’t get an A” or “you didn’t get a 100%”. It should be more about “what did you learn”, “what skills did you gain”, “what did you need more help on.”

We have to start redirecting parents and ourselves to focus more on what the purpose of the test was. What did the student demonstrate? Where did they start and where did they end? 

One of the problems for a student is if they go home and are reprimanded for anything less than an A when they’ve given their best effort. This causes course grades to be a source of stress.

That is why I really think educators have to start encouraging parents to move away from that mindset. 

It’s never too late to work on these stress relievers! If we can begin to teach students to destress, it will benefit them forever.
How do you keep stress away from your students? I’d love to hear!

Over twenty plus years, my educational career has spanned four continents and two states, as well as eight grade levels!

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