How to Overcome Test Anxiety
Put down your class notes and textbook for just five minutes and take this short quiz. It might actually help with the rest of your study time.
1) Do you have a difficult time motivating yourself to start studying for a big test? ______
2) Do you expect that, no matter how hard you study, that you will do poorly on the test? ______
3) Do you find yourself easily distracted during your study time? _____
4) When you take a test, do you have difficulty understanding directions and the questions? _____
5) Do you feel physical discomfort such as upset stomach, a headache, breathing difficulties or tension as you take a test? _______
6) During the test, do you frequently space out and draw a blank? _______
7) Do you find it hard to organize your thoughts during the test? _______
8) Does your mind wander to other things as you’re testing?
9) Immediately after you finish a test, do you remember an answer that you couldn’t recall during the test? _______
10) Do you find that your test scores are usually lower than those on papers and other assignments? ______
Each of the above 10 is a common symptom of test anxiety; if you replied yes to four or more, then anxiety is probably an issue with you and might be causing you real problems with your classes.
Test anxiety is not something dreamed up by students to explain why they do so poorly in their classes. It’s a recognized psychological phenomenon. Specifically, it’s a form of the psychological condition known as ‘performance anxiety.’ It’s described as a flight or fight reaction to people as they perform either in public or for others to evaluate.
If you’re thinking of something sexual right now, you’re not too far off the mark. It’s the same psychological condition that negatively affects some people’s ability to do well in sexual intercourse.
Don’t get too worried, though. Just because you experience test anxiety doesn’t mean you’re psychologically imbalanced. In fact, this is one psychological condition that is experienced by most people at some time or other. Some people just face it more than others.
Let’s discuss the causes of test anxiety. As with other forms of performance anxiety, test anxiety is your body’s and mind’s reaction to something stressful, as it adjusts, almost in a panic, in an attempt to handle that upcoming issue effectively. Any time you’re under stress, the body releases adrenaline. Adrenaline is a hormone whose purpose is to prepare a person for danger. This adrenaline is what causes the symptoms that you experience, such as a pounding heart, sweating, rapid breathing, sweaty palms, etc.
When the body starts experiencing these symptoms, they interfere with basic thinking processes. Put simply, this means that your pounding heart and rapid breathing interfere with mental processes such as remembering, problem solving and analyzing. In other words, test anxiety is actually something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You worry that you won’t do well on the test, and this triggers adrenaline. The adrenaline causes the symptoms we’ve mentioned, such as the rapid breathing and fast heartbeat, which in turn get in the way of clear thinking.
When these symptoms are present, basic thinking processes like remembering, analyzing, and problem solving are affected. That is the reason that students who experience test anxiety feel that their brain is just not working right.
The biological state of anxiety is something that has evolved in humans, and for good reason. Its purpose is to keep your body vigilant and ready to fight or run if the need arises. However, as the biological state was evolving, it did not and has not adapted well to changes in today’s society. The adrenaline rush was meant to guard a person’s life, not put him on alert regarding a college exam. Still, there the psychological state is, ready to help you if a lion attacks or to hurt you when it keeps you from remembering the members of the Periodic Table of the Elements.
Another important cause of test anxiety is the worry about how others will perceive you if you do poorly on the exam. A student who regularly experiences test anxiety tends to be the one who puts a lot of pressure on him or herself to perform well. They feel they have to do well to make parents happy or to maintain their status as the smart one in the class. One less-than-perfect grade shatters this person’s self-confidence, which causes more test anxiety in the future.
The Procrastination Connection
Most students who have a problem with test anxiety also have problems with procrastinating. This is not a coincidence. Our natural reaction when danger is perceived is to avoid the situation. So even though it’s not logical, when the deep-seated emotions sense that the upcoming test presents danger, the mind’s response is to avoid the issue altogether. Studying for the test is the logical thing to do, since this is what will help the student do well on the test; but on an instinctual level, the person wants to run away from anything pertaining to the test.
And by the way, this just adds to the self-fulfilling prophecy we talked about earlier. The student does not want to study for a test that he thinks is going to be difficult. So when he finally gets around to studying for it, adrenaline is released, and this does indeed interfere with studying. And with the test itself. The procrastinator inevitably waits until the last possible minute to study, and this makes the test anxiety at exam time even worse.
This means, of course, that a perfectionist is more likely to have problems with test anxiety than the non-perfectionist. The perfectionist finds it hard to accept mistakes he or she might make, which releases the adrenaline that interferes with his or her performance during the test. More on Procrastination.
What to Do About Test Anxiety?
Okay, so now we know that test anxiety is common, it’s a real condition, and it has the potential of doing real harm to your college grades. What, then, can you do about it?
The good news is that you don’t have to surrender to the anxiety. Instead, use the stress to your advantage. Pay attention to the signals that your body is giving you. Remember that stress is your biological warning mechanism. It’s your body telling you to be alert for something important that’s coming up soon. The very fact that you feel stress over an event means there’s a good chance that you should not ignore this event that you should take action. So rather than considering anxiety an enemy, pay attention to its message; the message, in this case, is STUDY. And study NOW rather than later. Chances are, if you respond in this manner, you will prevent stress from getting out of control.
Another thing you can do: Be willing to ask for help. While a little anxiety can serve as a positive signal to take action, too much of it will cause you to perform poorly on the test. It’s better, instead, to get some help. Seek out a tutor or, if your professor is open to this kind of thing, speak directly to him about the issue. If you are taking a College exam or High School tests, go to the Counseling center. If nothing else, make plans well in advance to study with a group of friends; this goes a long way toward alleviating the stress that accompanies test anxiety.
Pay attention to what you’re thinking, both as you’re studying and as you’re taking the exam. Learn to immediately recognize any negative thoughts (I’ll probably bomb the multiple-choice section) and force yourself to stop the thought in mid-stream. Replace these negative thoughts with positive ones: I know this material, so the multiple choice portion will be a breeze.
Keep your mistakes in perspective. This is both important yet difficult, especially for the perfectionist. However, you must remind yourself regularly that everybody makes mistakes and nobody is great at everything. Learn to think of mistakes as learning opportunities. One boy, for instance, was in a third-grade spelling bee and was eliminated for spelling the word business wrong. Forty years later, he says he has never spelled business as business ever again, all because he learned from a mistake.
Another important key: Take care of yourself. This means you should guard your health by continuing to eat right, getting enough sleep, and exercising, especially during the week before the test. These will help to keep your mind operating at its sharpest.
Taking care of yourself also means to learn relaxation techniques so that you can calm yourself down when you need to do so. Check out a book at the library on relaxation, or do a Google search on relaxation exercises, or try these breathing exercises.
And finally, be prepared before you take the test. One of the easiest ways of calming yourself before you take the test is to know confidently and absolutely know that you’ve mastered the material.
All of these strategies so far have been things you can do before the test to alleviate test anxiety. There are also some tricks to adopt during the test itself. For instance, you should immediately use the relaxation techniques we already discussed as soon as you sit down in your chair in the classroom. Continue throughout the test to breathe deeply, and do your best to stay relaxed.
Follow an effective test-taking plan such as the DETER strategy. This stands for D-irections (Never begin the test until you’re sure you understand the directions); E- xamine (Make sure you know how many questions are on the test and what kinds before beginning, so you know how much time you should spend on each section); T-ime (Plan your time and keep an eye on the clock, making sure you don’t get too bogged down with any one question, if time is running out); E-asiest (Go through and answer the easiest questions first); R- eview (If you have enough time left, go back and double-check all answers). See our Ultimate Guide to Test Preparation Strategy and Seven Smart Study Habits.
As you’re taking the test, don’t worry about students who are finishing ahead of you. When test day is finished, nobody is graded according to how quickly they finished compared to everyone else. You’re only graded on how many you got done in the time allotted to you, so feel free to use all of that time, if necessary.
Two other strategy tips that will help you stay relaxed: For essay questions, make an outline first and then try to stick with the outline (This will keep you from rambling); and for multiple-choice questions, eliminate the obviously-wrong items, as this will improve your chances of getting the question right. See more on How to Answer Different Types of Questions.
Once you’ve completed the test, hand it in. Then go home or to your dorm and forget it. There’s nothing more you can do about the test at this point. Don’t allow it to stress you out, especially in your studies for other classes. However, once the test is graded, if the professor is the type to hand back tests, be sure you get yours and don’t throw it away. If you did well on it, you should hold onto it and look at it frequently. The next time you start to stress out over an exam, remind yourself of how well you did on this one, and remind yourself what you did to get that grade.
But even if you did less-than-stellar on the test, you can still use it. Study it and see if it was a matter of you not knowing the material or if, instead, a strategy let you down. For instance, perhaps you spent too much time in one section and didn’t get to another. This tells you not to allow yourself to get bogged down like this in the future. Even a poor test result, if looked at in this way, can be learning experience and help you fight off test anxiety on the next one. If you failed, well there is always a next time – More on what to do if you fail.
Okay, break time is over. Pull out the text and your class notes and let’s ace a test!