Cumberland Times-News

October 20, 2012

These steps may ease students’ test anxiety

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— A sizable percentage of college students seem to suffer from test anxiety. This is enhanced when the students are taking courses quite different from their major or preferred area.

To insure a broad perspective, most colleges expect students to take a number of general education courses, primarily introductory courses in natural science, mathematics, history, literature, art, music and social sciences.

This column may prove helpful to high school or middle school teachers.

 Most of my college students are freshman or 1st year students who don’t like tests.

So over the years, I have developed a number of strategies to enhance their confidence. First, I distribute my own test study guides to help them prepare for each test. These guides consist of a series of questions on the major topics covered on the test.

So by working through these questions, the students must read the text, refer to their notes and develop their own understanding through their own efforts.

But when I emphasize that these questions are not the actual test questions, some students are disappointed. For they think that working on these questions would be a waste of their time.

 To avert this outlook, I am now allowing students to bring their own handwritten answers to the study guide questions and use them for reference during the tests.

Furthermore, I collect the study guide answers and give the students bonus points for them, based on neatness and correctness. I insist on handwritten or hand printed answers to insure that these answers are the student’s own work.

For a number of years, I have also posted previous sample tests so the students can see what kind of questions might be on their test. These sample tests have a variety of questions, including multiple choice, fill-ins (with word bank), short answer and word problems (for engineering and physics courses).

Once again, some students express displeasure that these test items are not the actual test questions. These disappointed students are those who have been spoon fed. In previous classes (possibly in high school or even in college), these students have found out a number of test questions prior to their tests.

 This term I have decided to split my tests in two. The first half of a test is taken with a partner. The study guide answers can be used by both students as they answer the questions.

The partnered test doesn’t permit the use of the textbook or class worksheets. One of the students in the pair turns in his or her partnered test; the partnered test is graded with each partner receiving the same score.

After the partnered test is collected from all of the pairs, I reveal the answers on the practice test so the students can avoid making the same mistake on the individual test.

 The second test is the individual test, where each student must come up with their own answers. The individual test has no questions in common with the partnered test, but covers the same content.

 After having given a number of dual tests in my classes this fall, this strategy seems to be successful with higher test scores than in previous terms.

 Another innovation is to limit the number of items on each test. I have found that about 25 short items is optimal for an hour test. This insures that each student has sufficient time to read each question and think about it before answering. I also implore each student not to turn in one of my tests with blanks (answers not attempted).

 Now that I have shared some of my strategies to combat test anxiety, I want to consider the students. A sizable fraction of students don’t study in a given class on a weekly basis.

So without regular reinforcement, they forget what has been covered or discussed in class. Then as the test approaches, they often feel overwhelmed by all the concepts they must review. This is scary and painful; it’s no wonder that many students feel anxious towards their tests.

 The most common question about tests is: “Do I have to memorize this equation, or this set of chemical groups, or the names of the regular planets (in order of distance from the sun).” I often give my students mnemonics (a memory aid) to help them remember, for example “My Very Eager Mom Just Served Us Nachos” gives the 8 planets in order of increasing solar distance.

As for formulae or equations, I just tell my students not to worry as I will put the necessary equations somewhere on the test. It’s their job to know how to use the equations.

Memorizing equations is analogous to buying a great collection of tools; these tools are useless unless you know how to use them.

 I welcome any comments on test anxiety from any students or teachers. My email is rdoyle@frostburg.edu .

THE COMING WEEK’S SKY SIGHTS This evening, the moon is at first quarter phase (half full) as the moon has travelled through one quarter of its orbit since passing by the sun (New Moon).

This is the best time of the month to see the moon’s craters and mountains with binoculars held steadily or a small telescope. Along the straight edge of the moon the sun is rising, lighting up the crater rims and mountain peaks. As the week progresses, the moon will become broader, reaching full phase on Oct. 29.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.