Dealing with Test Anxiety

Cold feet! Sweaty palms! Shortness of breath! Butterflies in the stomach! Rapid heartbeat.
The symptoms are familiar to us all. The typical person has experienced them at one time or another, for one reason or another. For one person, these symptoms accompany having to speak before a group of people. For another, they occur during a job interview. And for many students, they happened each time they have to take a major test.
What causes test anxiety and how can one respond to it? What variety of responses can help control the problem?
Causes of Test Anxiety
Psychologists have focused a great deal of attention on the issue of stress. They speculate that stress occurs in modern man when he faces a threat of some kind. Our ancestors responded to threats by either fighting or fleeing, but modern society discourages such behavior, so all of the tension we feel inside has no such convenient outlet, and it manifests itself in the physical and emotional symptoms described at the top of this page.
Most such anxiety occurs in people who see themselves in an activity that involves public speaking, while trying to convince a prospective employer to hire them, or when demonstrating their competence on a test of some kind.
A little stress is entirely normal and can actually improve one’s performance. A healthy amount of stress can be a real motivator and help to focus the senses on the task at hand. In fact it is abnormal for a person to feel no stress in a testing situation – it would suggest a lack of concern for the results one way or another. However, we must also recognize that for some people, the anxiety is so great that it blocks rational thought therefore keeping them from performing up to their potential. High levels of stress tend to cause people to focus on specific items located in specific areas of the brain and block access to other items located in other areas of the brain.
Dealing with Test Anxiety
The good news is that students can break the cycle of anxiety that handicaps their testing performance. With some of the strategies offered in this article, and in some cases with help from trained counselors, students can learn to control anxiety - to keep it from paralyzing them or muddling their better judgment when they need to act. As one writer put it, if we can’t make the butterflies in our stomach disappear, we can at least get them to fly in formation.
Of the variety of strategies for dealing with test anxiety, some are aimed at getting students to improve test preparation to make a test less threatening, some are to redefine the testing situation itself, and others will identify some means of coping with stress once a student is in the process of taking a test. Different strategies work for different people, so each person must try several approaches and identify the ones that will work for that person’s learning style.
1. Adequate Preparation
Let’s deal with the most obvious reason students have test anxiety: they aren’t prepared for the test and they know it. If the test counts for a significant part of their final grade, then they should be anxious. Many students study for recognition, yet know that they don’t “understand” the material. Many hope to succeed by multiple guess. For some students, expectations don’t match the reality and they realize as soon as the read the first question.
Students who have a recurring problem with test anxiety must ask themselves the tough question and be prepared to give an honest answer: “Have I really devoted the time and energy to learning the material the test is going to cover? Anyone who can’t honestly answer the question with a “yes” should expect to deal with test anxiety.
Some students may feel that they are prepared for a test, but in fact are not because they confuse recognition with recall. Recognition of a correct answer depends upon a visual prompt. If I asked you in what year the Battle of Hastings occurred and gave you four choices on a multiple choice test, you might be able to recognize that the year 1066 is the correct answer. But if I asked you to tell me the year without the benefit of four choices, you would have to “fish” it out of your memory, which is a more difficult task.
The most demanding tests students take in college require that they recall the information rather than just recognize it. Therefore, students must learn to review material so that they can recall it for the test. To determine readiness, a student should be able to do what is referred to as recitation, which is the ability to pull information out of memory and express it in an individual’s own words. If a student can do this, then they have learned it to the point of recall, not just to the point of recognition.

To determine if test anxiety has been caused by inadequate preparation, try this on the next test:
Put extreme effort into preparing for the tests using I notes and other techniques (see Review and Test Preparation in the LAC). Start several days beforehand and give the material time to sink in. Work until you can recite important information. Continue until you have over learned it. If your test anxiety is lessened significantly, you have the answer to your problem, and you will know how to prevent it in other courses and on other tests.
2. Putting the Test in Perspective
It is important to be realistic about what a test really is and is not. A test is not solely a measure of intelligence. It is not even a direct measure of knowledge of the course material. It is not a complete picture of what someone knows. And it is certainly not a measure of a person’s worth as a human being.
Many students define the test in precisely those terms. Failing a test means to them that they aren’t smart, they aren’t cut out for that course, they aren’t a capable, “worthy” student, or they don’t belong in college.
What is a test then? What does it measure? A test may measure an individual’s performance on a given day. It tells how much is known about the questions the teacher asked, which may represent a fairly small sampling of the material in the unit. To some degree, a test measures a person’s skill as a test-taker for a particular instructor. Besides supplying “correct answers” by recall, some tests measure an ability to apply logic to questions, the ability to respond the way the instructor expects. Most of the tests measure work in only a fraction of the course, and the results of a given test – either good or bad – may be offset by a number of other grades. Ultimately a test gives a person feedback on the learning outcomes of the course.
I am not suggesting someone rationalize a poor performance or develop a cynical attitude about testing. But keeping a healthy perspective on what tests really do show is important. Don’t build them up into more than what they really are.
3. Getting a Clear Description of the Test
If I told you that something unpleasant was waiting for you in a dark room, refused to tell you the nature or intensity of this threat, or how you should be prepared to deal with it, would you be frightened as you opened the door to the room? Of course you would – anyone would be.
And yet many students approach a test with very little information about what to expect. In some cases, they simply don’t give more than passing attention to the teacher’s description of the test. Perhaps at other times, the teacher only vaguely describes the test to the class.
A basic right you have as a student is to know what will be expected of you on a test. This includes what the test covers, how much the test affects your final grade, whether the test will be in an objective or essay format, and how long you will have to complete the test. Most teachers will provide this information and will respond to questions from a class as long as they are not aimed at getting the teacher to offer hints or in some other way limit the legitimacy of the test. You should ask your teacher in class or schedule an appointment to clarify what your must prepare for. Knowing what is “behind the door” will go a long way toward lessening your anxiety.
The first tests from an individual teacher should be the hardest since you have less basis for knowing what to expect. Always review a test when a teacher returns it to glean a better understanding of how to take the next test. Many teachers have a favorite format and most of their tests will follow that pattern. Many sororities and fraternities keep files on teachers just for that reason.
4. Physical Exercise
As noted earlier, our ancestors dealt with stress by a physical response, either fight or flight. You can make use of a physical response, too, although hopefully a more productive one, by getting some vigorous physical exercise before a test. A fast walk from the far end of the parking lot will get the blood flowing, release endorphins which make people feel better, and increase the overall activity level of the brain.
5. Positive Self-Talk
One very bad habit some students develop is to listen to a negative inner voice that says something to the effect, “Well, there you go again! You’re losing control, aren’t you? Face the truth – you’ll blow this test just like you have the others before. Why don’t you quit kidding yourself, you dummy!” (Really nice guy, huh?)
Almost all of us have such critical voices inside our heads. Sometimes the voice tells us we don’t measure up to others in the class. At other times it tries to blame our performance on the test, the teacher, or some other convenient scapegoat. Obviously, nothing good comes from such a negative voice, and we must learn to combat it with positive self-talk.
Successful performers of all kinds, from opera singers to Olympic athletes, have learned the power of positive self-talk. They develop an inner voice that is encouraging rather than critical, a voice that stimulates positive behaviors rather than negative ones. Other people have developed the skill of positive “imaging” – getting a mental image of themselves performing well, feeling their own satisfaction and enjoying the approval of others from this imagined performance.
A first step for anyone with test anxiety is to quiet the critical voice when it starts its familiar refrain. Replace the voice with a positive one: “Stop! I will not lose control. I am prepared for this test.” Then take a deep breath, close your eyes for a second, and focus on the things you know.
Build confidence by answering the questions you are sure you can answer correctly. Chime in occasionally with some positive feedback: “O.K….that’s five points in the bag…Now the next one.” Look for clues to the “tough” questions in the easier ones. Use notes, pictures, and other mnemonic devices to help remember items (see Managing Memory). You may wish to read the instructions a second time to make sure you understand what is expected of you. If you are stumped on any essay question, take a scratch sheet of paper and just jot down phrases or ideas that relate to the question. Keep your focus on the test, the words you are writing, or the immediate task at hand – don’t focus on yourself, on what others are doing, or on our own physical reactions to the test.
6. Deep Breathing Exercises
The value of breathing exercises in a situation of stress is that they focus the mind on something other than the threat and help to break the cycle of tension that can just continue to build and intensify if allowed to do so. When you are deeply relaxed, it is physiologically impossible to be anxious.
Try this breathing exercise. Put your feet on the floor, sit up straight, and close your eyes. Count very slowly to ten inhaling and exhaling with each count. Breathe deeply through your nose and fill your lungs. Hold your breath for a couple of seconds and then breathe out slowly and easily through your mouth. Open your eyes and provide some positive self-talk. Proceed with the test and try to preserve the same sense of ease you had in the focused breathing
7. Focused Muscle Relaxation
Our inner tension will almost always translate into tensed muscles, often in our legs, arms, neck, and head (thus the tension headache). This phenomenon works in reverse as well: relaxed muscles can ease the inner tension. While the following exercise may make you feel a little self-conscious, you can do it without drawing any attention to yourself, and best of all, it can really help.
When using focused muscle relation, you must “tune-in” to the various muscle groups and identify those that are tight and tensed. Consciously focus on each muscle group and relax or loosen them. Start with your legs: stretch them out comfortably and let them go limp. Relax your abdominal muscles. Next, flex your arms and hands and let them hang loosely at your side for a few seconds. Relax your neck by rolling your head from side to side and letting your head drop forward until your chin touches your chest. Finish the cycle by dropping your lower jaw and letting the muscles in your face go limp. Stretch your mouth, eyes, cheeks, and forehead. If the frontal muscles there are deeply relaxed, it is hard for the rest of your body to be tense. Now tune in to each muscle group again and repeat until the tension has left your body. Take a slow, deep breath or two and continue with the exam.
8. Anxiety Exaggeration
Sometimes it is best to handle tension by exaggerating it to the point of absurdity. When that critical voice starts, go with it, build on it, carry its criticism to the extreme: “That’s right, I am bound to blow this test. My teacher will drop me for being such a dummy. Nobody will want to ride in the same car with me because of the shame. I’ll be on TV as “The World’s Dumbest Human.” My dog will run away from home and my parents will write me out of their will. My life will be ruined, all because I’m too nervous to concentrate on this test.”
Such extreme exaggeration will often help put the testing situation into a realistic perspective. Laughing at the critical voice will go a long way toward easing tension.
9. Answering Easier Questions First
As noted earlier, it is a good idea to begin the test using the strategy of answering only the questions you are confident you can answer correctly. This practice helps you to start the test confidently and build your confidence, and answering such questions in a rational frame of mind will let you make associations with other ideas that may be tested in some of the more difficult questions. If time is a consideration, answering the easier questions first assures you of getting credit for what you know. The second time through an objective test you can employ a second strategy: go back to the items you skipped and work to eliminate choices that you are confident are the incorrect ones. You therefore improve your odds by narrowing your choices. Just the sense of having a strategy can help keep your mind focused on productive behavior rather than counter-productive tension. Studies indicate, in spite of common belief, that changing answers is more likely to improve a test score.
10. Avoid Forced Recall
An odd feature of our memory is that it seldom works exactly how and when we would like it to. The information contained in our long-term memory is arranged into a complex network, and exactly where a bit of information has been stored may not be obvious. Have you ever seen a student trying to force their brain to recall a bit of information: their eyes are clenched tightly shut, and their fists are pressed tightly to their temples, and you can almost hear the mental grunt.
The brain works much better making free associations with other related ideas. When you skip a difficult question and go on to something else, the brain continues to unconsciously search for the answer which might seem to “pop up” a few minutes later. Trying to force recall seldom works but will build frustration and tension which is counter-productive on a test.
A Closing Thought
The suggestions above represent a variety of techniques offered by educators and psychologists to help people deal with stressful situations. Though you may feel that a few may not work in your situation, consider the remaining ones and determine which you can try the next time you are faced with an exam. The key to dealing with test anxiety is to learn to exercise control over it, and whichever techniques give you that control can make test-taking a much less stressful situation.
Remember, test anxiety can be treated, even for those people for whom the problem assumes phobic proportions. Seek the advice of a counselor for additional assistance in learning to deal with testing anxiety.