Blake Fetty is a lecturer of Spanish at the University of Central Oklahoma
Research on testing anxiety shows a clear correlation between test-taking anxiety and lower test scores.
In some classes, this anxiety is more apparent than others. As a Spanish teacher, my students’ anxiety is never more visible than right before a speaking assessment. Over the years, I’ve seen all sorts of adverse behaviors displayed by students due to their anxiety, from tremors and rapid breathing to tears. All of these signs pull at a teacher’s heartstrings but rest assured—there are things we can do. I incorporate mental health activities into my course to help my students calm their anxiety before taking a speaking test. It will also benefit your students in general, regardless of the class they are in.
Just breathe… and be aware that you are breathing.
Conscious breathing can be a very useful tool for students. More often than not, the average student is going about their day in the typical “speedy” mode that defines young adulthood. We want to accomplish things quickly. We want recognition. And we fear failure and embarrassment. It’s only natural. For younger students, this pressure to achieve while simultaneously trying to avoid humiliation in class can create an unachievable expectation to never make mistakes. This becomes particularly poignant during an oral exam in a foreign language class.
Here is a typical scenario that plays out often in foreign language classes:
The student enters the room to take an oral exam. They profess their nervousness before being asked how they’re feeling. They are displaying physical signs of anxiety: nervousness, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, etc. They take their seat with their thoughts racing over all the studying and practice they have done and with the sincere desire to NOT MESS UP!
This is the moment to offer some help.
Here are some steps you can take to help your student come back to their calmer center, find their breath again, and give their best performance on their exam.
Step 1. Ask the student if they’re nervous.
Step 2. Ask the student if they would like to try a calming technique before they begin their oral exam.
Step 3. Demonstrate by taking three deep, slow “in breaths,” holding for a moment, and releasing slowly.
Step 4. Invite the student to participate a few times.
Step 5. Ask them if they’re ready to begin the exam.
By giving students a simple tool to confront their test-taking anxiety, you build the student’s confidence to be in control of their anxiety. By asking them if they are ready to begin the exam, you give them a sense of control over the situation.
“I enrolled in this course. I signed up for this Speaking Exam. I have prepared for it, and now I am ready to begin.”
In my experience, the results of this simple accommodation could not be more dramatic. I’ve often noticed that students may not have ever had the opportunity to change the environment within themselves before taking a test. They are likely accustomed to jumping right into an exam, speeding through as quickly as possible, and trying to “outrun” their racing thoughts related to their test anxiety.
By slowing down, finding their breath, and taking a moment to acknowledge what the test anxiety is doing to their bodies (shallow, quick breaths, racing thoughts, elevated heart rate, nervousness), they will begin to empathize with their bodies and learn how to appreciate what they’re going through. They come back to a place of calm and confidence. That is when students do their best work.
For more on the topic, watch this recorded session from the Empowered Educator Spring 2023 Conference, titled “Promoting Mental & Physical Health in Any Discipline.”