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Math Test Anxiety

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Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 | CWK Producer

“Because they’re fighting with that anxiety and that distraction, sometimes even at an unconscious level- having to compete with that and do the task decreases their performance.”

– Ken Carter, PhD, psychologist, Emory University

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A new survey of U.S. teens reported in Education Week reveals that students highly value the subjects of math and science and understand the important role those subjects play in their futures. Yet plenty of kids still suffer from math test anxiety, which effects learning – and performance.

“I mean, I can get it, but when test time comes I panic about the math parts because I’m afraid that I might get the wrong solution,” says 16-year-old Toni.

“And you feel like you have to do well to keep up with everybody else and it just puts a lot of pressure on you,” agrees 16-year-old Sammy.

But the irony is, according to a study, all that worrying can actually lower test scores.
Researchers from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas found that anxiety and worry comes from the same part of the brain that is used to take a math test – or any other test.

Psychologist Ken Carter explains: “Because they’re fighting with that anxiety and that distraction, sometimes even at an unconscious level- having to compete with that and do the task decreases their performance.”

So, the more you worry, the lower your grade. And that problem gets even worse on a high stakes test, like the S-A-T or a statewide promotion exam.

Fourteen-year-old Mary Ellen has felt the pressure. “The more they talk about how it will affect the school and each person individually- the more stress it puts on the students.”

Experts say there are ways parents can help.

First, it’s crucial their kids get a good night’s sleep, have them eat a healthy breakfast, and experts say, reassure them, it’s just one test, and worrying won’t help.

“We want you to do well, but if you don’t do well, it’s not going to be the end of the world,” says education expert Stan Williams.

Mary Ellen’s advice: “Try not to stress about it too much, because if all you’re thinking about is how well you’re gonna do then you’re probably gonna mess up, because you’re not concentrating very well.”

What We Need To Know

Nearly all American teenagers recognize the importance of math and science, and most are confident in their own abilities in the subjects, a survey of U.S. youths suggests. Researchers wonder if there may be a disconnect between students’ confidence in their abilities in science and math and the reality, given the performance of U.S. students, including in international comparisons where they tend to lag behind many other developed nations.

Part of that performance might be related to test anxiety. Most students experience some level of anxiety during an exam. Causes of text anxiety may be linked to a lack of preparation, poor time management and study habits or worrying about past performance on exams, especially in relation to friends and other students.

During an exam, as in any stressful situations, a student may experience any of the following physical symptoms: perspiration, sweaty palms, headache, upset stomach, rapid heart beat or tense muscles. These reactions can have the following difficulties:

  • Reading and understanding the questions on the exam paper.
  • Organizing thoughts.
  • Retrieving key words and concepts when answering essay questions.
  • Mental Blocking: Going blank on questions.

Students can try these strategies to reduce test anxiety:

  • Avoid “cramming” for a test. Trying to master a semester’s worth of material the day before the test is a poor way to learn and can easily produce anxiety.
  • Make the most out of your study sessions. Study in a location where you can concentrate, get interested in the material, and give it your complete attention.
  • Improving your perspective of the test-taking experience can actually help you enjoy studying and may improve your performance. Don’t overplay the importance of the grade – it is not a reflection of your self-worth nor does it predict your future success.
  • If you feel very anxious in the exam, take a few minutes to calm yourself. Stretch your arms and legs and then relax them again. Do this a couple of times. Take a few slow deep breaths. Do some positive internal self-talk; say to yourself, “I will be OK, I can do this.” Then direct your focus on the test; associate questions to their corresponding lecture and/or chapter.


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