Overcoming Test Anxiety

Test anxiety takes many different forms. Part of combating test anxiety is understanding its sources and identifying its symptoms. Whatever the source, be assured that test anxiety is common.

Test anxiety has many sources. It can be the result of the pressure that students put on themselves to succeed. Without any pressure, students would not be motivated to study, and some stress connected with taking exams is natural and can enhance performance. When students put too much pressure on themselves or set unrealistic goals, however, the result is stress that is no longer motivating, only debilitating.

The expectations of parents, a spouse, friends, and other people who are close to you can also induce test anxiety. Sometimes, for example, students who are the first in their families to attend college bear the weight of generations before them who have not had this opportunity. The pressure can be overwhelming!

Finally, some test anxiety is caused by lack of preparation, such as by not keeping up with assigned reading, homework, and other academic commitments leading up to the test. Procrastination can begin a downward spiral because if you do poorly on the first test in a course, you have even more pressure to do well on subsequent tests to pull up your course grade. This situation becomes even more dire if the units of the course build on one another, as in math and foreign languages, or if the final exam is cumulative. You have to master new material that follows the test while trying to catch up on the old material.

Some test anxiety comes from a negative prior experience. Transcending the memory of negative past experiences can be a challenge, but remember that the past is not the present. Perhaps you performed poorly in the past for good reasons. You might not have prepared for the test, you might not have read the questions carefully, or you might not have studied with other students or sought prior assistance from your professor or a tutor. If you carefully follow the strategies in this reading, you are very likely to do well on all your tests. Remember that a little anxiety is OK. But if you find that anxiety is getting in the way of your performance on tests and exams, though, be sure to seek help from your campus counseling center.

Types of Test Anxiety

Students who experience test anxiety under some circumstances don’t necessarily feel it in all testing situations. For example, you might do fine on classroom tests but feel anxious during standardized examinations, such as the SAT and ACT. One reason standardized tests provoke anxiety is the notion that they determine your future. Believing that the stakes are so high can create unbearable pressure. One way to deal with this type of test anxiety is to ask yourself this important question: What is the worst that can happen? Remember that no matter what the result, it is not the end of the world. How you do on standardized tests might limit some of your options, but going into these tests with a negative attitude will certainly not improve your chances. Attending preparation workshops and taking practice exams not only can better prepare you for standardized tests, but also can assist you in overcoming your anxiety. Also remember that many standardized tests can be taken again at a later time, giving you the opportunity to prepare better and pull up your score.

Some students are anxious only about some types of classroom tests. Practice always helps in overcoming test anxiety; if you fear essay exams, try predicting exam questions and writing sample essays as a means of reducing your anxiety.

Some students have difficulty taking tests at a computer terminal. Some of this anxiety might be related to lack of computer experience. On the other hand, not all computerized tests are user-friendly. For example, you might be allowed to see only one item at a time. Often, you do not have the option of going back and checking over all your answers before submitting them. In preparation for computerized tests, ask the instructor questions about how the test will be structured. Also make sure that you take any opportunities to take practice tests at a learning center or lab.

Test anxiety can often be subject-specific. For example, some students have math test anxiety. It is important to distinguish between anxiety that arises from the subject matter itself and more generalized test anxiety. Perhaps subject-specific test anxiety relates to old beliefs about yourself, such as “I’m no good at math” or “I can’t write well.” Now is the time to try some positive self-talk and realize that by preparing well, you can be successful even in your hardest courses. If the problem persists, talk to someone in your campus counseling center to develop strategies to overcome irrational fears that can prevent you from doing your best.

Symptoms of Test Anxiety

Test anxiety can manifest itself in many ways. Some students feel it on the very first day of class. Other students begin showing symptoms of test anxiety when it’s time to start studying for a test. Others do not get nervous until the night before the test or the morning of an exam day. Still other students experience symptoms only while they are actually taking a test.

Symptoms of test anxiety can include butterflies in the stomach, queasiness or nausea, severe headaches, a faster heartbeat than normal, hyperventilating, shaking, sweating, or muscle cramps. During the exam itself, students who are overcome with test anxiety can experience the sensation of blanking out and being unable to remember what they actually know. At this point, students can undermine both their emotional and academic preparation for the test and convince themselves that they cannot succeed.

Test anxiety can impede the success of any college student, no matter how intelligent, motivated, and prepared. That is why it is critical to seek help from your institution’s counseling service or another professional if you think that you have significant test anxiety. If you are not sure where to go for help, ask your adviser, but seek help promptly! If your symptoms are so severe that you become physically ill (with migraine headaches, hyperventilating, or vomiting), you should also consult your physician or campus health service.

Strategies for Combating Test Anxiety

In addition to studying, eating right, and getting plenty of sleep, a number of simple strategies can help you overcome the physical and emotional effects of test anxiety:

  • If at any point during a test you begin to feel nervous or you cannot think clearly, take a long, deep breath and slowly exhale to restore your breathing to a normal level.

  • Before you go into the test room, especially before a long final exam, stretch your muscles—legs, arms, shoulders, and neck—just as you would when preparing to exercise.

  • Pay attention to the way you are sitting. As you take the test, sit with your shoulders back and relaxed rather than hunched forward. Resist the temptation to clutch your pencil or pen tightly in your fist; take a break and stretch your fingers now and then.

  • Explore anxiety-reducing techniques that might be available through your campus counseling center. These methods include systematic desensitization, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization.

  • Pay attention to the mental messages that you send yourself. If you are overly negative, turn those messages around. Use cognitive restructuring to give yourself encouraging rather than stress-provoking messages.

  • Do not allow others, including classmates, your spouse, parents, or friends, to undermine your confidence. If you belong to a study group, discuss the need to stay positive.

Getting the Test Back

Students react differently when they receive their test grades and papers. For some students the thought of seeing the actual graded test produces high levels of anxiety. Unless you look at the instructor’s comments and your answers (the correct and incorrect ones), however, you will have no way to evaluate your own knowledge and test-taking strengths. You might also find that the instructor made an error in the grade that might have cost you a point or two, in which case you should let the instructor know.

Review your graded test because doing so will help you do better next time. You might find that your mistakes were caused by failing to follow directions, being careless with words or numbers, or overanalyzing a multiple-choice question. If you have any questions about your grade, be sure to talk to the instructor. Going over your grade is an excellent reason to visit your instructor during his or her office hours. You might successfully negotiate a few points in your favor, and in any case, your concern will reflect that you want to succeed.

cognitive restructuring A technique of applying positive thinking and giving oneself encouraging messages rather than self-defeating, negative ones.