Union in the News for February 18, 1998
Students with test anxiety get help
By Mary Martialay - The Daily Gazette
Who doesn't remember the dread of school tests? Some tests were a cinch, but there were always a few that got the butterflies going before breakfast, where the first sight of the test paper miraculously erased all memory of the topic, and where the stress didn't go away until hours after the exam ended.
But for some students, starting as early as fifth grade, it's a lot worse than a day of the jitters. At its worst, anxiety over tests can be so traumatic that students refuse to go to school.
Test anxiety isn't an official diagnosis of a psychological disorder, but for a small proportion of students it is a daily and unsavory aspect of school, said Rudy Nydegger, a local psychologist and Union College professor. "It's more than some people get more jittery than others," Nydegger said. "These students may not be able to take the exam, or they may sub-perform and then obsess and worry about it afterwards."
And it isn't always the best students who suffer. "More often than not it's the best students," Nydegger said. "But for some of the not-sosmart kids, every test is an opportunity to prove how dumb they are."
Among younger students, the best recourse is to follow a few simple steps. "I give them very specific things to do: Like get their studying done well before the test; limit study time the night before the test; in the morning talk about things other than the test; when the time comes to take the test, take it and then put the test down and walk away," Nydegger said.
Nydegger said he also encourage students to put tests into perspective. "Kids will grossly overemphasize the importance of a test," Nydegger said. "They'll project themselves all the way to 'I'm a failure in life.' "Sometimes he'll have students talk to their teacher and ask what would happen in the worst case, if the student got a zero on the test.
"Usually teachers will say 'I know the quality of your work, and if you do well on other things, it's not going to matter,' " Nydegger said. Or he'll give some fatherly advice and tell students about his own experience of going to college and doing fairly well in life despite a few bad test scores. Having parents and teachers on board is essential.
Among older students, Nydegger emphasizes strategies over specific steps. "It's more conceptual and less behavioral," Nydegger said. "We'll talk about when to study, what to study, and how to study."
Recently, an elementary student Nydegger is treating said he'd walked into class to find a pop quiz. The boy, normally an A student, was completely unprepared and got a 40 on the quiz. But with Nydegger's advice, he took it in stride.
"I asked him how he felt and he said 'I was pretty nervous when they first told us we had a test . . . but my best is all I can do,' " Nydegger recalled. "Six months ago this boy wouldn't have slept for two days."
With college students Nydegger said it's also important to talk about how chemicals backfire. "If a person is anxious, an antidepressant can lower the arousal, but it comes back even higher than before," Nydegger said. "Unless you go stoned or drunk into the test, it won't help. And that's not a good idea, either."
In his private practice, Nydegger said that in most cases, test anxiety comes up as a secondary concern after students have sought help for another mental health concern. But as emphasis on tests increases, parents and teachers are becoming more aware of test anxiety among their children and students. Since he first started teaching at college level in the 1970s, Nydegger said test anxiety has become more common. "I can't quantify it, but I have the distinct feeling it's an increased percentage. It's not huge but more so than in the past," Nydegger said.