Test Anxiety: What it is and what to do about it

Dr. Richard Osbaldiston, Ph.D.

It’s not uncommon that a student says, “I studied hard, but when I took the test, I kind of _________.”  You can fill in the blank with “lost it,” “freaked out,” “stressed out” or a dozen other expressions.  It doesn’t matter the words you use; you are probably describing test anxiety.

Test anxiety occurs when some sort of anxiety interferes with cognitive processing.  The anxiety can come from fear of failure, lack of preparation, poor test history, or stereotype threats.  The symptoms include cognitive difficulties (not being able to think straight or remember things) as well as physical feelings (rapid heartbeat, shaking hands, sweating, shortness of breath).

If you suffer from test anxiety there are two things that you need to know.  

First, everyone has emotional responses to performance situations, but the magnitude of the effect differs among individuals.  Some people are excited by the chance to perform, and these people often rise to the occasion and do better in testing conditions.  But some people have stronger emotional responses that carry them over to the dark side, and instead of being excited, they become overwhelmed and anxious.  In these cases, performance on tests can suffer.

Second, if you suffer from test anxiety, you need to find ways to dial back your overly strong emotional responses.  Here are some suggestions:

1.    Be prepared.  Don’t use test anxiety as an excuse for poor performance.  Develop good study habits.  At EKU, we are working on an important concept called “meta-cognition.”  Meta-cognition is “knowing what you know.”  Just because you read the chapter doesn’t mean you “know” the contents of it.  You have to do other things, like rehearse the material and quiz yourself, to be sure that you actually know the material.

2.    Be positive.  Anxiety is a state of mind.  That means you can battle it with other states of mind.  A positive, confident outlook can help offset anxiety and nerves.  Think of the “Little Engine that Could.”  Or even better, check out Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on power poses for a life hack on how to put yourself in a confident mindset.    

3.    Be smart.  The little things matter.  Get to your classroom a few minutes early, pick a seat where you are comfortable, and have your notes or materials arranged neatly.  Stick to your normal routine in terms of eating; don’t eat too much or too little before a test.  And don’t start experimenting with caffeine when you have to take a test.  Caffeine can make you feel nervous or jittery.

4.    Be mindful.  Take deep, slow, controlled breaths during the exam.  If you feel yourself losing it, take 30 seconds to pause and breathe three deep, slow breaths through your nose.  As you do that, count to 10 on each breath.  Doing this is like a mini-meditation, and it can help clear away your fear.  Taking 30 seconds to clear your mind will and lower your anxiety will save you time in the long run.

Although test anxiety is common, it doesn’t have to derail your academic progress.  Anxiety can be controlled and minimized so that you can perform your best in every test situation!

Published on December 09, 2015