Taking the Stress Out of Test-Taking
By Ron Rubenzer, EDD, MA, Mph, MSE, FAIS
*This is an article from the Fall 2020 issue of Contentment Magazine.
Information is the currency of democracy
Thomas Jefferson 1
Why Turn the Spotlight on Test-Taking?
This fall, 56 million children are going back to school in some form or another after their education had been put on “COVID-Pause.” Some schools are using a student’s progress as of March 2020 to determine the next grade promotion. Since there was no end of grade testing this year, some schools suggest simply using age to determine grade promotion.2 We can find hope in the fact that since the first public school opened in 1635, our nation’s schools have always re-opened.3 But how do we decide where to begin?
Gauging “Learning Loss” From the “COVID Pause” and Summer
The COVID Pause Learning Loss by itself could be up to half of a school year. Add to that the traditional two-month Summer Learning loss, 4 and the 2019-2020 school year is something like two steps forward, one step back. A recent study projected that students will start the new school year with an average of only 44 percent of the learning gains in math, and 66 percent of the learning gains in reading compared to the gains for a typical school year.5,6
Testing is Better Than Guessing
Since testing is better than guessing, some type of formal assessment is needed to gauge our new-normal beginning point for instruction. This is far better than the radical alternative suggested by some, that we just completely repeat the entire past 2019-2020 school year!7
Through COVID-Pause and Summer Breaks, students may have also lost their emotional test-taking edge since it is unlikely that parents would test and grade their own children at home.
Test-taking is not like riding a bike, so this article may serve as training wheels to get students up-to-speed again.
Any adult learner who has gone back to school can testify that one’s test-taking skills can become rusty.
The fact is most people pass tests every day. 222 Million people have summoned the motivation to pass their driver’s license exam—an important gateway test.8 Now we have a great national experiment–college without entry-test scores. Since SAT, ACT, and similar entrance tests were canceled because of COVID, the testing trend now is a “test-score optional” movement for thousands of colleges, including the prestigious Harvard 9 and the University of Chicago.10
Trust in tests has been diluted in recent years. The infamous college admission scandal definitely dampened the traditional use of testing for college admissions.11 In the same light, overly eager parents have been known to give their children their own Xanax prior to taking a test, to dampen the proven performance-robbing effects of test-anxiety. Americans may need to hone our comfort zone about testing since on the world level, we ranked about 30th in math and about 24th in science.12 Many other cultures positively embrace and welcome tests as tools for advancement.
Four Benefits of Testing
- Tested is trusted. Your doctor passed the most difficult and stressful tests there is–the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) followed by the Medical Board Exams. Knowing your doctor did well on his/her tests can engender trust. By contrast, if your surgeon said, “I did ‘OK’ on my Medical Board Exams,” how would you feel?
- Before & after tests can measure your progress toward goals and provide you with corrective feedback.
Think of tests as stepping stones, not stumbling blocks.
- Testing can identify your needs and assets. Marilyn vos Savant, the world’s best test-taker in the 1980’s, claims the purpose of testing is to identify needs and assets of those at the extremes of the group.13
- Tests protect us, the consumer, from unqualified providers. Imagine if you will, hearing over the plane’s PA, “This is your captain speaking and this is my test flight.”
A Barrier to Peak Performance: Test-Anxiety
Testing can trigger an over-sensitivity to criticism and judgment. “Few people can take criticism graciously,” according to Dr. Leonard Seltzer in his Psychology Today article on criticism.14 The ability to take criticism in stride, it seems, is almost universally elusive. Take heart, if you are test-anxious, or just test-annoyed, you are in good company. Even Albert Einstein with his rare IQ of 160 [one out of 31,560] seemed test anxious. After a grueling set of tests, he exclaimed, “After I passed the final exam, I found the consideration of any problems distasteful to me for an entire year.”15
The good news—within weeks, he recovered from his test anxiety. Einstein said, “My nerves have calmed down enough so that I am able to work happily again.”16 So, with that in mind, be confident that test-taking may be temporarily annoying, but it is survivable, changeable, conquering and it can even build your resiliency.
Five Fast Facts About Test Anxiety (Fear of Failure)
- Test anxiety is not inborn. It is a learned habit, so it can be unlearned. With practice, you can change your force of habit to put yourself under just the right amount of pressure (like a properly inflated tire).
- Even before the COVID-Pause, test-anxiety affected about 60% of students, 20% very significantly, according to a major study by Heartmath.17 The social-emotional costs of the COVID-Pause for school children are no doubt enormous, disrupting attention span, learning and performance.
- We can catch test anxiety from the test anxious, because of emotional contagion. Female students tend to be more prone to test-anxiety, yet women earn the majority of certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor’s degrees.18
- Students with high anxiety perform around 12 percentile points below their low anxiety19
- Test anxiety gives you tunnel vision and clouds your judgment. Such anxiety can present itself through distracting physical reactions (stomachaches, headaches, respiratory distress).
The Take-away: watch the company you keep.
Learn to take tests from the best, not the stressed.
The Good News—reducing test-anxiety improves test scores according to the major 2015 Heartmath study, Reducing Test Anxiety and Improving Test Performance in America’s Schools.20 Focused stress is simply fuel to propel you to success.
How to Do Your Best on Tests—Four Basics
- Follow the leader in test performance. If you want to do well on any standardized test, seek out experts who give clear evidence of improved test results. Your local school psychologist/counselors can be useful in linking you up with the best test-prep services.
- TestingMom (online home learning) has helped 650,000 to do their best on tests given K-12.21
- For College Entrance tests, Kaplan and Princeton Review employ only top-scoring consultants. William Heckman, MS, DAIS, developed an online gaming program resulting in a 100-point gain on SAT scores.22
Quote–Chance favors the prepared—Louis Pasteur
- Devote Time on Task (TOT). “Time on Task” is the best predictor of better test performance. Marilyn vos Savant, known as the “world’s best test-taker,” advises that repetition is the best way to learn.23 Repetition even helps improve understanding, just like seeing a movie more than once helps us pick up more details and better remember what happened.
- Adult Learners: Budget your time-on-task. The average adult can focus (even if it means continued re-attention) perhaps 30-40 minutes in a calm setting. Build up your attention span to match the eventual test you will take. Over weeks, gradually stretch your focus span by taking full-length practice tests. Researchers at Columbia University found that studying and test-taking in the morning result in a better outcome.24
- For Parents: Millions of soccer moms eat-sleep-and-breathe practice to help their children learn sports.25 Be as devoted as soccer moms to keeping your high school child on track for admission success. Become a “Testing Mom” as coined by Karen Quinn.26
- 20 minutes of exercise by itself boosts mental performance as much as caffeine, but without the negative side effects of caffeine’s anxiety-like symptoms.27
What types of tests do balloons fear the most? “POP” quizzes.
- Test-taking Triathlon. Just as athletes develop their whole body for peak performance, apply test-taking triathlon training for Peak Performance. The test-taking triathlon trains you to become Fact-Smart, Test-Smart. and Stress-Smart. Specific activities to groom the three types of smartness follow.
Five Tips for Becoming Fact-Smart (building working memory)
- Remember the Three R’s = repetition, repetition, repetition.
- Develop/use your own flashcards and stack the deck with only the memorized facts. Have someone “quiz you” with your flashcards. Live-eat-breathe your flashcards until you learn them by heart. Play “not-so-trivial pursuit” with partners.
- Divide and conquer information overload by studying for a few daily 50-minute sessions over several days or weeks, rather than cramming. Otherwise too much information will just be lost.
- Reward yourself for sticking to your test-prep schedule with periodic treats matched to the size of your efforts. Maybe enjoy a 15-minute funny YouTube binge for sitting through a session. Perhaps a movie for staying on point for four of five days. Get creative! Post your awards, badges, trophies, diplomas, certificates, as forward motivators. Celebrate milestones–degrees, licenses, etc., proportionately. If you slip up, be easy on yourself, and remember the progress you have made.
- Remember—understanding and mastering a fact are two different things. I understand how to dunk a basketball, but that doesn’t mean I can do it.
Two Tips for Becoming Test-Smart
- If appropriate, use a test-specific diagnostic survey to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. This will help you devote the most time on your weakest areas while building on strengths. Careful testing can determine if a person won’t or can’t understand/respond to a testing challenge. For example, if you don’t know your multiplication tables, a math test would be hard. Sometimes a first-time attempt at a test (like the SAT) can reveal strengths/weaknesses. Indeed, more than half of the students who take the SAT a second time increase their scores.28
- Answer the core question, without being tripped up by word traps (irrelevant details) or generalizations (always, never, everywhere). For example, answer this question: How many words are there in the English language?
The answer is 3 words; the , English , Language 
Four Tips for Becoming Stress-Smart
- Practice “Breath Counting” (from 10 to 1). Dr. Allison Wood Brooks, Harvard Business School Associate Professor, suggests you should count down from ten to one while breathing slowly and deeply through your nose. Then repeat. Like teaching a new puppy to stay, your mind will wander. When you drift, start back at ten and count down to one, while breathing slowly and deeply through your nose.
- Time Management IS Stress Management. You can take the pressure off yourself by having several 50-minute daily study sessions over weeks rather than cramming. Have your test-prep calendar in plain sight as a friendly reminder. Over weeks, relaxed exposure to an increasing realistic test-load will strengthen you to remain even keel. If needed, a mental health professional may be useful in helping you adjust your level of test-anxiety to your benefit.
- Half an hour before a test session, eat a banana, and weeks before, cut back on sugar caffeine.
- Just for fun- try an open book test on the test material, and even make up your own questions. Play sudoku scrabble, and similar tasks of increasing challenge.
Remember, the test-taking triathlon game-changers combine the triple strength of being fact-smart, test-smart, and stress-smart.
Indeed, as Jefferson proclaimed, “Information is the currency of democracy.” Testing can serve as a mirror to show your progress in building up your brain – think of it as your information-carrying muscle, thus increasing your value to yourself and others. Empower yourself and your kids to test at your best!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Ron Rubenzer, EdD, MA, MPH, MSE, FAIS is a Contributing Editor with The American Institute of Stress. He holds a doctorate and two master’s degrees from Columbia University in New York City. He won a doctoral fellowship to attend Columbia University’s Leadership Education Program. While serving as a school psychologist at Columbia, he won a national student research prize of the year for an article written on the brain. Dr. Rubenzer worked at the Washington DC Office of Education. Also, while at Columbia University, he wrote an article for New York Magazine on enhancing children’s development of their full potential. He has devoted his career to specializing in “reducing stressing-during testing” for better outcomes. He has worked as a stress manager for a hospital-based cardiac/stroke rehabilitation facility and its Employee Assistance Program. He also coordinated a wellness program for a large school system. He is a fellow with The American Institute of Stress and writes focus articles on “using stress to do one’s best” at home, work, and school. He has also conducted speaking engagements for conferences and presented for a number of television shows. His latest book is How the Best Handle Stress – Your First Aid Kit https://www.amazon.com/How-Best-Handle-Stress-First/dp/1731056508