Case Study of a Student with Test Anxiety
I wanted to write today about one of my SAT students who was dealing with a lot of test anxiety. She’s a student who works very hard and achieves high grades at a tough private school. She’s been preparing for the SAT for almost a year now and is getting ready to write it a second time this coming November. Although a very diligent and intellectual student, she had a major weakness – Math. Like many high school students, she has always found math to be challenging. But, over time this subject has resulted in a great amount of anxiety. Even though she knows her stuff, she does not do well on the math section of the SAT test.
When I first met her, she was scoring around 1000. Her reading and writing skills were already quite good – in the 600s, but, her math scores were in the 400s. We worked for two months and spent a majority of the time on math. After we went over all the common math concepts on the SAT, I started giving her mock exams. There are two main reasons for giving mock exams. Firstly, it allows for me as the tutor to pinpoint exactly what the student is having trouble with and the types of errors she is making. And secondly, it allows for the student to get used to the test taking environment and builds her stamina to write an exhausting three hour test.
Each week, I would analyze her mock tests to see where she was making errors and why. It soon became obvious that the majority of her errors were due to three main reasons:
- Carelessness – accounting for ~ 26% of her wrong answers
- Self-doubt and anxiety about certain topics she didn’t like (functions and triangles) – accounting for ~ 11% of her wrong answers
- Function and geometry questions about triangles – accounting for ~21% of her wrong answers
Her careless errors included things like not reading the question fully, misplacing negative signs, and punching in values in her calculator wrongly. She also didn’t like topics like functions, certain algebraic equations with fractions and exponents, and geometry questions testing triangle rules. When she sees these questions, she immediately skips them and goes to the next one because she thinks that the question will be too hard for her to do. And when she does attempt them, she is very doubtful of her answer. Also, I realized that as soon as she starts a math section, her anxiety levels are already high. But, they’re low for the reading and writing sections.
Once we highlighted all these issues and made sure that she was aware of them, we started consciously making an effort to stop these things from happening. Just preventing careless errors would help her get more than a quarter of her wrong answers right! We also started practicing the math topics that she was afraid of much more, so she could get used to them and build her confidence. In the reading and writing section, her main issues were that she didn’t like the long passages and found the material to be ‘boring.’ We realized that because of that she was unable to focus on a passage very well and so, didn’t retain the information when it came time to answer the passage-based questions. This caused her to rush and increased her anxiety as well. To improve that, I gave her tons of practice with very, very long passages (like 10x longer than on the SAT) and 10x more boring. The point of this exercise was to help her get used to reading boring things – because there’s nothing anyone can do about that. It really helped build up her focus and willingness to get through those passages.
This targeted training really helped all of her scores improve. By the end of about 12 weeks, she had literally done 12 mock exams with me in real-test like conditions. Her scores have dramatically increased; she’s started scoring in the 700s in all the sections, consistently. All of these mock exams and targeted strategy had reduced her anxiety levels probably by 70 – 80%. This is a subjective figure, of course, but being with this student and getting to know her so well over these months – I can definitely tell the huge difference in her confidence levels from now and when I first met her.
I have no doubt that she will rock the SAT this November.
The take home message we can learn from this is that if you notice that your child is having trouble in a specific area (usually math), chances are that it’s due to a bad cycle of anxiety and difficulty understanding the material. The anxiety builds up more and more as the child progresses further and further in school – you can bet that a child, who finds math tough in grade 9, will absolutely hate it in grade 12. Get help as early as possible. Find someone who can help your child understand and deal with the stress and anxiety of trying to learn these difficult subjects. We live in a competitive world where kids have to study harder and do more than ever before to get into the best programs and institutions. It’s a wonderful thing for them to learn how to deal with stress and anxiety now because it won’t get any easier in University.