Some Anxious Thoughts

I’ve been thinking about anxiety lately. At a time when many students in England will be sitting or about to sit their mock exams (my own son included), it seemed like a good time to raise the issue again.

None of us are strangers to anxiety and, indeed, some anxiety is actually beneficial to us. Anxiety places us in a state of readiness, prepares our body for action. But, of course, it’s not all positive; too much anxiety will dampen our ability to think rationally and logically, leading us to behave in often unusual ways.

For our students, this behaviour might manifest itself in procrastination (a behaviour linked to both our perception of time and our sense of self), aggression or withdrawal, school refusal or heightened negative emotional responses to seemingly innocuous events.

For me, it often results in avoidance (which is conceptually different to procrastination). A habit I’m trying to break. Others are able to steer their anxiety on to a more productive path.

Eliminating the source of the anxiety does little to help; distracting ourselves from it only delays the inevitable. What we need to engage in is helping students to change the way they interact with their own anxiety; to identify sources, correct or challenge (what we psychology types call) misattributions and try and chip away at a deep-seated fear of failure that grips many young learners.

Make it personal

Keeping it centred on the individual can go a long way, so reduce or eliminate peer comparisons. In other words, don’t compare one student with another; they will share their results if they want to, but certainly don’t display student rankings publically.


Use goal setting. Studies have found that when students have specific, manageable goals to work towards and that they are fully cognisant of what they need to do to reach that goal, anxiety is reduced. I have already discussed the use or progress goals here.

Feel the FEAR (Face Everything And Recover)

Normalise test taking. Many students suffer from test anxiety in part because test-taking is not the norm, even though testing is a sure-fire way to embed information into long-term memory. Regular low-stakes testing (i.e. short quizzes) can both help normalise test taking and enhance learning. Of course, any activity that requires students to recall information they have learned works, but combining regular, low stakes quiz’s has the added benefit of exposing students to a more formal environment.

Mock exams actually present us with a great opportunity to readjust attitudes to testing. Like all tests, students tend to view these dry-runs as either unimportant or as a test of their intelligence in relation to their peers, when a more enlightened approach would be to see them in the same way as any kind of dry-run: an opportunity to engage with the process and a way of identifying areas for improvement.

Find out more about how you can help your students with anxiety:

The Emotional Learner

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One thought on “Some Anxious Thoughts

  1. […] This and other studies have wide implications for teaching and learning and for the need to embed coping strategies within pupils engaged in high stakes testing. They also suggest that such strategies are best directed towards the process of exam-taking rather than stress reduction in general (which can be beneficial). Obviously there remains the need to identify chronic levels of stress in all pupils and in all circumstances, however, this should not include the elimination or all stressful events. […]


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