Understanding and Managing Test and Exam Anxiety

Most of us, at one time or another, have felt anxious while taking an exam. This often happens in the days or hours leading up to the actual exam and becomes most acute during the actual exam itself. You know the feeling. You feel sick to your stomach, perhaps you sweat profusely, the negative chatter of the peanut gallery in the back of your head tells you that you aren’t good enough, and even simple test questions take far too long to finish or cause your mind to go blank.

Although test anxiety is quite common among college students and is not inherently counterproductive, under certain conditions test anxiety reaches a high enough level to negatively affect test performance. In fact, moderate to severe test anxiety can negatively impact information recall and test scores by a full grade or more. The good news, however, is that recent research in the social sciences has found several methods to be quite effective at reducing test anxiety. In fact, many of these techniques can work in other anxiety provoking areas of your life, including: sports competitions, job/internship interviews, and interacting in new social settings. Before I get to the solution for test anxiety we need to first understand it’s causes and symptoms.

Test anxiety consists of physiological and psychological effects, both of which impact your test taking behavior:

  • Physiological: Fight or flight symptoms such as rapid breathing, sweating, increased heartbeat, upset stomach, headaches, etc.
  • Psychological: Negative self-talk, irritability, scattered thoughts, general anxiety and nervousness.

These physiological and psychological symptoms, which largely stem from the sympathetic nervous system, are useful when our life is in danger. For example, increased breathing, decreased digestion, and blood flow rerouted to our muscles and more ancient, automatic parts of our brain, are amazingly useful when you are running away from a grizzly bear. However, typically our life is not in danger when we are taking an exam, so this stress response becomes counterproductive at higher levels. Quite simply, our body and mind are spending so much time and energy preparing us to “fight or flight” that the part of our brain essential for recalling and synthesizing information stops performing to its potential. In particular, our working memory gets used up and our brain can “go blank” on questions that only hours before we knew the answers to.

Before we move on to the causes of test anxiety I want to point out that some physical and psychological arousal can actually be a good thing. For example, take a look at the graphical representation of what is known as the Yerkes Dodson Law below. The bottom curve represents difficult or new tasks like exams or sporting events. The top curve represents simple tasks or tasks one has completely mastered over time.

Yerkes Dodson Stress Curve

Note that performance actually increases with low to moderate levels of arousal on all tasks. However, performance decreases after a certain point of physiological or mental arousal on new or complex tasks. Conversely, on simple or mastered tasks people sometimes perform extremely well as physiological and psychological arousal increases to high levels.
We’ve all experienced this at some point in our lives. For example, elite athletes will be familiar with the so-called “zone” or “flow” that often takes place in high stakes games or competitions. When we enter the zone or flow during competition, we perform at our peak athletic level. Sports psychologists generally agree that to enter the flow or zone, an athlete needs to have a high level of skill and confidence, love what they are doing, and the game or event has to be sufficiently challenging.

The long and short of it is that a combination of a sufficiently challenging situation, a high skill level and confidence, and enjoyment can lead to high levels of performance, whether it be on an exam or in a sporting event. However, when something is challenging and we have low skill levels or negative feelings towards the challenge, we can develop unproductive physical and psychological arousal (anxiety) and underperform. In layman’s terms, we choke, clam up, bomb it, cave under pressure, flop, etc!The research suggests that while you were in the zone you probably felt extremely alert and focused, drowning out all external stimuli unnecessary to the task at hand. In the moments and hours prior to the event you perhaps felt excited and filled with anticipation. Perhaps you went through a pre-game or pre-event routine that began with a meal and sleep the night before or a particular song or ritual before the actual event. And what preceded the event long term? This is the tricky part for a lot of people, yet it is actually quite simple and extremely important. What precedes the zone? Practice, Practice, Practice! How else could one develop the skill, confidence, and enjoyment necessary to enter the zone? We are going to return to this below, but I want you to keep the following in mind: In order to perform well on a test, one needs to practice a lot (study effectively and take lots of practice and real exams to build your skill level), foster positive self-esteem and confidence, and enjoy taking the exam. Okay, well, the last one is a tough one, but I promise you that over time as you build your test taking skills and confidence, you will actually look forward to and enjoy entering the zone on an exam, especially when you destroy that exam!

Stressed Person

1. Not being prepared for the exam: 
​In my experience teaching college courses and according to much of the research out there, the single biggest contributor to test anxiety is not being prepared for the test. The solution to this problem is easy: Study more (and more efficiently)! Being underprepared is not just an issue of not having all of the information required for an exam; it is also an issue of psyching yourself out. Deep down, every underprepared test taker knows they did not study enough. This can wreck your confidence, thereby doubly penalizing you: First, because you have not mastered all the information, and second, because of the high levels of anxiety this causes, which further decreases your ability to access the information.

I will talk more about studying for exams in later posts, but, in general, one of the most common mistakes I see is people waiting until the last minute to study for exams. You should begin preparing for an exam a week before the exam date. And remember, don’t just read and re-read your notes and reading assignments; you need to simulate a test taking environment. For example, think of your exam as a sporting event or competition. To prepare, for example, for a gymnastics beam routine a gymnast doesn’t solely do conditioning and strength work and work on each move in their routine separately. They also practice their full beam routine, over and over, so that when they show up for a competition they have practiced the actual beam routine and can almost do it in their sleep. The same holds true for a volleyball player. Practicing sets and spikes and staying conditioned are important, however, ultimately every volleyball player will also practice real game scenarios before they ever play an actual match.

​What this all means, is that you should be doing things like writing and trying to answer potential exam questions (with your notes and books closed) to prepare for exams, not solely reading your notes. Try and predict game time scenarios (i.e., the questions the professor is going to ask you) based on past assignments, lectures, etc., and avoid merely reading and re-reading notes and readings. In addition to this, you should also be doing all the basics: keeping up with the readings, attending every class, taking good notes in school, and taking advantage of office hours, teaching assistants, and tutors. It is also important to get adequate sleep and nutrition before an exam, and to have all the test taking materials (e.g., paper, pencils, calculators, etc.) ready the night before the exam.

2. Fear of Failure: 
Assuming you have prepared properly for the exam, the next most common reason for test anxiety is a general fear of failure. Sometimes this stems from low self esteem or being a perfectionist. Other times students in particular circumstances, such as athletes or other students on scholarship, have tremendous amounts of external pressure to perform well in school while also performing well in their extracurriculars. In my experience, student-athletes and other students who are used to being the best, or close to the best, at their sport can fear failure if school doesn’t come as “naturally” as their sport does to them. Again, I want to remind you of all the hard work and practice that you had to put in to your sport to get to where you are today. School will take time and practice, too.

3. Past bad experiences with test taking: 
It is quite common for people to ruminate about negative test taking experiences from the past. Because of the importance that the American educational system puts on standardized exams, many students have had negative experiences with tests dating back to their elementary school days. I have personally known dozens of students who are convinced that they have always been poor test takers. These past experiences can lead one to believe that they cannot learn how to be a stronger test taker. Often times this turns into negative self-talk on the day of the exam, which feeds into the test anxiety. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when this test anxiety leads to a poor test performance and the student further convinces themselves, one again, that they are not a good test taker.

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