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May 3, 2011 Conquering Test Anxiety By Mary Blow
Grades 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

    Whether it's a unit test, final exam, or high-stakes state assessment, some students will suffer from test anxiety. Ironically, it is often the student who has the least to worry about who suffers the most. Other students will tell me that they are better at math. Their brain just doesn't like to write.

    Whether it's a unit test, final exam, or high-stakes state assessment, some students will suffer from test anxiety. Ironically, it is often the student who has the least to worry about who suffers the most. Other students will tell me that they are better at math. Their brain just doesn't like to write. I use brain exercises and music to help my students conquer test anxiety and wake up both sides of their brain. Included in this post is a video demonstrating activities that activate both hemispheres of the brain and reduce stress.

    Photo copyright iStockphoto/Glepi.


    Brain Exercises

    In recent years, there has been considerable research correlating brain exercises with increased learning. A student's preferred learning style is determined by the dominant side of the brain. We perform these exercises to wake up both sides of the brain and reduce test anxiety. Originally, I learned of these exercises from a colleague, Jeanne McLaughlin, in the Lowville Academy Central School English Department. She shares these brain exercises with her high school students prior to the New York State English Language Arts Regents and AP exams.

    There is value to engaging in daily brain exercises. These exercises help students to develop the less dominant areas of the brain. According to The Lance Armstrong foundation, brain exercises help students to “release stress, expend excess energy and enhance learning” ( A few minutes of brain exercise during homeroom or before state assessments can make a difference in student achievement.

    Flash image copyright iStockphoto/alesandia.

    To learn how to do four of these exercises, watch the video. My students were more than happy to demonstrate how to do our version of the exercises.

      Music for the Brain

      Sadly, as I write this, many schools are being forced to cut back on music programs as a result of budget cuts despite research showing that music increases learning in math and science. Music is also beneficial in the classroom. Read the  Scholastic Instructor article "Music in the Classroom" to learn more about the benefits of having music in the classroom.

      Inner peaceFor the past ten weeks, I have been playing instrumental music while my students engage in silent reading or writing. Sometimes we listen to nature music, pretending that we are at the beach or reading on a rainy day. Other days, we listen to classical music or new age instrumental music. We select the music based on our classroom activity. They focus the best with a combination of classical piano (Beethoven, Bach, Mozart) and soft ocean sounds. Be careful when selecting instrumental music that is combined with nature sounds because it can be overpowering and distracting. Inner Peace: Music for Your Spirit by Tom Ameen is their second favorite. In the article "Music in the ESL Classroom," Kenneth Beare offers tips and strategies for effectively using music in the classroom.

      It wasn’t until one student shared with our guidance counselor how much they liked the music that I knew how much they did. When the music is playing, they are productive and work diligently. Our classroom is a slice of heaven on earth, the atmosphere relaxing and motivating. The quality of writing has improved since I started using music. There are fewer fragmented sentences, and the content is more developed. My concern at this time is whether or not I have handicapped them. They can have music during my classroom assessments, but I have not been able to confirm whether or not we can play music during state tests, so we may have to unplug during the official test. 

      A few days ago, I took an informal poll. Except for a few students, everyone preferred to have the music. I asked them why they liked it so much. One student said, “It helps me to focus.” Another student, pointing to the humming air filter, piped in, “It drowns out the noise from that thing.” A student who struggles with test anxiety proclaimed, “It relaxes me.” If students feel this strongly about it, why wouldn't I do it?

      The students who didn’t like the music preferred silence. In a normal workshop setting, these few students prefer to work in a separate location because the talking during conferencing and whisper reading is a distraction. I allow them to work in the hallway, or they go to a quieter setting.

      My primary music resource was the collection of classical music CDs in our school library. I have also purchased relaxation music from because it is inexpensive, and I can download songs immediately and import them them into iTunes. Many retailers have a section of relaxation CDs like the one pictured above, and you can preview them in the store. Another alternative is Internet radio. If you have a computer in your room, you can create a customized radio station on Pandora.

      Last Minute Pep Talk

      The first week of May, we will be taking our state exams and a few weeks later we take final exams. A good old-fashioned pep talk does wonders for reducing text anxiety, fostering The-Little-Engine-That-Could attitudes. If they think they can, they are more confident, which causes them to be more successful. After reassuring them that they are prepared and that I believe in them, I answer last-minute questions and review the testing procedures.

      During finals we have the same testing environment as during state assessments. It is important that they know where they will be taking the test and who their facilitator will be. We review test supplies: #2 pencils, highlighters, water bottle, etc. However, some students may not have the supplies or they may forget, so to avoid unnecessary stress, I remind them that some supplies will be available at their testing locations. Before they leave, I assure them that they have all the skills they need to be successful.

      I assign homework the night before a test. After explaining the values of sleep, a good breakfast, and drinking plenty of water, their assignment is to go  to bed early and eat a high protein breakfast. In our school district, if students are taking an morning exam, we serve a muffin and juice breakfast in homeroom.

      Additional test preparation resources and additional strategies for alleviating test anxiety can be found at Best Practices: Preparing for Standardized Tests.

      As always, I encourage you to share your ideas and thoughts below.



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    Susan Cheyney

    GRADES: 1-2