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Witch In A Ditch



There is nothing that makes an instructor-type person feel more frustrated and/or helpless than to watch a student, who you know is well-prepared and otherwise studious participant in all areas, collapse emotionally while taking an exam.


You sit there proctoring the exam, and you see said student freak out--be it crying, sweating profusely, or their eyes start growing to the size of flying saucers. You can't, by protocol, do a damned thing...you can't tell them anything, you can't give them extra time...nothing. And you know that this person studied, perhaps even over-studied. Worse yet is when they tend to excel in every other area, but when an exam comes into their presence, they can't handle it.


Their brain goes into hyperspeed. They start to hyperventilate. Telling them to "just keep breathing" or "calm down" actually works in reverse, making them panic even more. Will the others in class notice? What if I fail!? Holy )(*()_)(&_) And then the tears tend to fall.


In over 12 years of teaching, I've come across most all of the standard and uncommon learning disabilities. Most all of them, either I know a few teaching techniques to help the students, or I can recognize elements that I can address. But test anxiety...ugh. Not only can I not combat it, I don't even understand it. See, I always loved exams...ok, ok, 'love' is too strong a word. But I never did shrink from them...they were simply puzzles for me to play. Or to BS my way through, either way tests are challenges, and I like challenges. Sure, I occasionally was nervous (see: PhD comprehensive exams), but never having panic attacks. So for me to council a person who suffers from test anxiety, well, would be like a professional skydiver to council me on my fear of falling when up on a high platform. How in the hell can you empathize properly and not sound condescending??


This week was midterm week...well, for me, at least. All 3 of my main courses had their midterms. Thursday's class is a special group, with personalities that shine and eager pupils who want to know everything about everyone. One of my honors students was freaking out a bit, but was still upbeat. Then, halfway through the exam, I heard a lot of heavy breathing...like someone was trying to calm themselves down. I looked around, but I couldn't figure out who it is...and in a room with 9 students, it should be easy to do. Ten minutes later, I hear the even heavier breathing and sniffling. I look up, and my honors student is doing the sniffling. But knowing that she suffers from allergies, and the pollen is thick right now, I don't know if she's suffering an allergy attack, or what. Another ten minutes go by, and I see that there are tears rolling down her face...and the sniffling is being stifled unsuccessfully. And my heart sinks.


She ends up being the last to finish...and I technically gave her an extra 5 minutes, seeing as no one else was in the classroom, and no one would know. Once she turned in her exam, she started sobbing...the listening comprehension portion of the exam freaked her out and got her off rhythm, and so she felt like she ran out of time. After talking with her for a few minutes, trying to get her to calm down a bit, I started the slow walk home. I really didn't want to grade her exam, fearing sections of blank whiteness.


Eventually, it had to be done...I had to start grading the exams from that Thursday class, including that of the honors student who freaked out. As I went through the exams, including hers, I found that she wasn't doing that bad...yes, she had sections where she fouled up, but not so much that there was incomprehensible Spanish. Yes, she ran out of time, but there was no catastrophic or epic fail. In fact, as I totted up her score, she passed...barely, with about 4% to spare, but she passed.


At that point, I felt a tear streak down my cheek.


Edit to include the PS:

Last night, after writing this, I emailed the student to let her know about her grade...I never do this, and make all of them wait until I pass the exam back. But I let her know how she did, and what I think the next steps are. Within 20 minutes she replied...and happily. I can now enjoy the weekend :)


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How curious.... When I was young, exams were meant to test the individual and I don't remember anyone collapsing under the strain (though a fair few of us suffered bad results - I got U in World Affairs - Ungraded)


Back then of course we were put through tests every other week. The results were often read out, those who did well applauded, those who did badly humiliated mildly, and no-one worried about psychological damage of which I suspect there was very little. It seems to me that the political correctness in modern western classrooms doesn't prepare children for stress or stong demands either as young students or in later life.

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Well, I think there's something there...that education methods have changed over the years. When we were kids, no one knew what ADD/ADHD, test anxiety, or other 'behavioral' issues were, and those kids were often dealt with. Those with learning disabilities like dyslexia (which is really an umbrella term for so many visual learning disabilities) were often just cast aside into the 'special kids' classes, which only held them back.


Test anxiety is something that, like I said, I was oblivious to before I started teaching. Either there weren't many people who suffered...or they coped in ways that weren't obvious (medication, for example). Another side is that many students in college try to 'go without' their special status...all through high school they are forced to get special help, extra time, etc., and they often feel like in college they have to try to go on their own. It's something I support them on, although usually they tell me what their learning disability is at the beginning of the term, so that I can work with them throughout and monitor them. Sometimes I end up telling them to go back to Disability Services for their special permissions...other times, I don't. It depends on the severity of the disability.

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One of my brothers failed his university admission tests like this. Because they were given just once a year and the competition was high there was a lot of pressure and he performed far below then during mock exams with his tutor. This was happening in communism so I guess it had nothing to do with "political correctness in modern western classrooms". Some people just can't take the pressure. I myself choked a few times when I had to speak in front of crowds so I can sympathize.

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That was my weakness: huge stage freight, even when sitting at my desk. I had zero self-confidence, so when called on to give the answer to something, or when I had to give a presentation, I freaked. That changed my last year in college, as I gained more self-confidence, and my fear of speaking subsided completely. Of course, no one who knows me now believes me!

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I know how Ghost feels but even for those of us who failed to make as good grades as we should have in school there can be hope for you later in life.


more generally some of exam issues can be down to how individual students prepare or don't prepare for exams as much as their perceptions of what is required.


My brother had a fellow student in High School who was a straight 'A' student nto only that but seems to have he got 100% in all of his tests but spent all of his time studying and revising to the extent that he had a nervous breakdown before his exams and failed the lot.


In comparison when studying for a Degree part time we had one mature student who was also a straight A student but had twice totally failed his final topic exam.


We eventually realised what had kept tripping him up and as a class basically battered him into the realisation that there was no 'correct' answer to the visual images which were first up in the exam. He eventually accepted that he could choose in which order to deal with the topics and that with the visual images he had to make his own interpretation based on the available evidence presented and comparisons with other images he knew.


I later heard that he did finally achieve the top level 'honours' grade he had previously kept failing on.

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You're right, Melvadius, that preparation is key. But those with test anxiety usually over-prepare, as they are so worried about failing that they cover every single possible angle, not just those that you lay out for them in a review packet. They display a high-strung nature normally, but that gets ramped up big time before and during an exam. And it doesn't matter what kind of exam it is...it's the pressure situation associated with the exam. These are people that will start to freak out on a small quiz...and God help them if there's a surprise quiz in class.


Test anxiety isn't about being a bit on the slow side, or about lack of preparation. It's about true, paralyzing anxiety, the kind that most of us don't feel on a regular basis. These people are incapable of relaxing their mind enough to take an exam properly.

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