Test Anxiety? – Don’t Think So.

A number of years ago there was a sudden and significant outbreak of test anxiety amongst high school students. Parents were calling the school and asking for help. And they wanted it today.

As I discussed the concerns with individual students, a simple structure for discussing test anxiety emerged.  The structure eventually became The Circle of Success. 

I compare test anxiety to an empty glass. As a student goes to school, completes homework, and studies for tests, the information that they learn, like marbles, is put into the empty glass. When a student sits down to take the test, anxiety fills the glass with milk and the marbles are no longer visible. Through counseling and other cognitive therapies, students can learn to put a hole in the side of that glass so that anxiety can be drained away and they can see the marbles and successfully complete the test.

However, most students that I talked to had a glass full of milk and very few marbles. The reason the milk was there was because the student was anxious about having an empty glass.  For many it was a lack of preparation that lead to test anxiety. It’s hard to feel confident when a student knows there’s nothing in the cup.

The simple structure that emerged followed the flow of instruction and assessment:

First, students RECEIVE instruction.

Second, students RETURN their completed homework.

Third, students REVIEW the content.

Fouth, students REVEAL their knowledge of the content on a test.

Fifth, students REFLECT on how they did.

Below is the graphic of The Circle of Success. In future blogs I will unpack the concepts we, as a Freshman Academy, created connected to each wedge or section of the circle.


I have used this diagram as an outline for my discussions with students who are having difficulties. I start with questions about sleeping, eating, and self-care, the foundation of a student’s ability to RECEIVE. This leads to a discussion of how they see the classroom and their ability to RECEIVE information.

Next would be a discussion of homework. Is it getting RETURNed? What organizational systems are in place to help them with school?

Following the discussion of systems, the seldom productive conversation about REVIEW usually leads to an understanding that it’s not happening. Freshmen just don’t REVIEW. They have yet to see the utility in it. The absence of REVIEW can generate a lot of test anxiety or at least low test grades. REVIEW is almost always part of the journey to a solution.

Next is the test, or as I call it REVEAL. During this discussion about the actual testing process, the conversation often returns to eating and sleeping. Next, we talk about mental state. Are they nervous? What are they nervous about? Tell me the story of you taking a test? It’s actually very revealing to the student to talk through these ideas.

REFLECT is key and often neglected. When a student receives a grade on a test or quiz, what do they think about? What do they do with that information? This discussion is best had after I have introduced The Circle of Success. I will talk to a student after the test results come back, and we will walk through the whole process again trying to discover what went right and should be duplicated or what went wrong and should be amended in some way.

Each wedge has to be present in order for things to roll well. If there is a gap, the process gets stuck and anxiety or poor performance results.

The goal is to facility self-discovery of the process of learning for that student. There are common, quality strategies that can help, but the key is helping students think about their thinking and then facilitating that next step. The goal is to be well-rounded. The students need assistance in seeing what wedge is most in need of attention.