Essay Test Preparation: Overcoming Test Anxiety


As both an executive function coach and a teacher, I’ve seen students stress over tests again and again.  Over the past few months, for example, I’vePanic been coaching a student whose emotional regulation around test preparation and peformance is nearly debilitating.  She experiences acute anxiety when a test is coming up and that anxiety carries through until the moment the test is over.  During our work together, we discovered that her test anxiety fluctuated based on the format of the exams: she could excel on multiple choice questions but would bomb the open-response formats.

“What,” I thought to myself, “could be responsible for the different outcomes?”

The answer to my inquiry? Fear of the unknown.

The Teacher's Perspective

As a teacher, I know that many of my colleagues provide study guides for upcoming tests. Others provide clear and specific information to be tested (e.g., material from chapters 4-5).  Both of these approaches reduce a student’s fear of the unknown in the way that teachers guide them to very specific focus areas for test preparation. Unfortunately, open-ended questions are typically shrouded in mystery; many teachers withhold the actual question they intend to ask during the essay portion.  This tactic is often seen as a quintessential indicator of a student’s learning: “If my students have been engaged and attentive all along,” a teacher might reason, “then they should be perfectly able to answer the kind of question I’m asking.”

Makes sense, teacher, makes sense.  The type of question that’s often asked highlights or encapsulates the focus of the most recent learning objectives, and thus should be approachable and answerable to a student who has been actively involved in the class.

The Student's Perspective

To the students, though, this concealment heightens stress and, oftentimes, elicits questions such as, “Why bother preparing for the essay question when I don’t even know what it will be?” or “How can I prepare if I don’t know what to prepare for?”

Good points, student, good points.  And when you feel like studying is hopeless - and thus decide not to study at all- that’s when test anxiety can mount.  The good news is that a student can prepare for the unknown rather than fear it.

Overcoming Test Anxiety

One strategy that we have created for approaching the mysterious essay question is called Any Essay Brainstorm (AEB).  This technique enables students to shift their mindset toward what they do know rather than orbiting the freak-out zone.  The key here is to think like the teacher.  And, because the student is in class with the teacher every day, they are actually in a great position to be able to do just that.  They’ve spent the past few weeks on a certain topic, taken notes, received handouts, engaged in various in-class activities and experienced their teacher emphasize or focus on specific points. All of that engagement in the class makes the unknown much more knowable and, therefore, much less stressful.  Want to see how? Click on the Any Essay Brainstorm link below for a step-by-step guide for how to use AEB and a model from a student who used AEB to prepare for the *seemingly* unknown.

Does your child panic about essay tests? Do you want to help your child to prepare, but don’t know how? We have an effective and easy to use tool for overcoming test anxiety that can help. 

Download Essay Test Prep Guide


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photo credit: <a href="">elbragon</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

About the Author

Brittany Peterson

Brittany Peterson is a college writing instructor, certified writing tutor, and senior executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart. She began her career in education at Quinnipiac University earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and Masters degree in Secondary Education. Feeling motivated to expand her pedagogical skill set, Brittany pursued a second Masters degree in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Boston. After graduating, she became a full-time lecturer at UMass Boston where she currently serves as the Assistant Director of Composition and teaches first-year composition to a diverse classroom culture including English Language Learners and nontraditional students from a variety of academic backgrounds. Brittany's experience with adult learners, diverse cultures, and a range of learning abilities has enabled her to become a flexible educator who is sensitive to individual learning needs and intrinsically invested in their educational success.

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