Many students experience test anxiety at some point or another. It’s that feeling of dread, mild fear, vaguely racing thoughts, nervousness, then your mind going blank that hits you once you sit down to take a test. Sometimes text anxiety can get so bad that it can cause a student to do poorly on an exam, fail a test, or even cause them to get up and walk out of the room. In order to find the antidote to test anxiety, you first need to understand what anxiety is.
Anxiety is a natural biological response to a perceived threat. Signs of anxiety can be racing thoughts, nervousness, a sense of fear, or hyper-alertness. Imagine meeting with a friend who has a big dog that you really don’t trust- You’re not quite afraid yet, but you’re highly alert and “extremely concerned.” Anxiety and fear are meant to protect us, and are part of our fight-or-flight response that keeps us safe from threats. For students, a test can often represent a very real (albeit non-physical) threat. College students stay in college only because of passing grades, so the threat can be very real in many ways. Text anxiety is a response to this very real academic “threat.” This very natural biological response can work against us, causing us to freeze, want to leave, or just draw a blank during a test. All the deep breathing in the world won’t help this.
But, there are a few effective strategies that can be used to counteract test anxiety:
1. Be prepared for the test.
Nothing is more anxiety provoking than feeling that you’re not prepared, so make every effort to study and be ready for the test. This means putting in the time to do the reading, covering your notes, and preparing correctly for the specific test type (e.g., essay vs. multiple choice). Anxiety comes when we feel that we have no control, and a powerful antidote to this is to make sure that you feel that you’re in control. Being prepared means having control and reducing fear of failure, therefore anxiety.
2. Answer the questions you know first.
Imagine sitting down at the test and the first question you read is one that you don’t know the answer to. Then, the second one you don’t know either. Major panic attack, right? If you adjust how you are taking the test, it might help. Nothing about classroom tests says that you have to answer the questions in order, so treat it like a complex puzzle: Solve the parts you know first. Read the question, and if you don’t know it, skip it, and move on to the next one. What you’ll find is that as you answer the ones you do know, your confidence will increase and your anxiety will reduce. Also, what you may notice if you use this technique is that the answer to the one you thought you didn’t know either shows up in your mind eventually or is actually stated in a question later in the test (essentially having the patience to let the test give you an answer as you go along). By answering the questions you know first, you’re “building” your way up to say answering 50%, 70%, then 90% or even to an A. The trick is patience.
3. Expect and predict your own anxiety response.
Here’s the thing about anxiety: It doesn’t last forever. If it did, our bodies would essentially self-destruct. In fact, there are even terms for this ending (e.g., desensitization, habituation). Essentially this means the longer that you’re exposed to the anxiety provoking situation, the anxiety will gradually start to decline. I’m sure you can recall a situation where you felt really anxious or nervous, and the longer you were in it, the nervousness just passed. The same is true for test anxiety, except that tests are usually within a short time span and you need to get it under control out of necessity. Ways to do this can include being prepared, as I’ve said, but also arriving at class early and getting in your seat with only your pencil on your desk. In essence, you’re deliberately putting yourself in that situation early to let any anxiety come and go early. It’s kind of like confronting the fear on your terms, rather than letting it hit you like a freight train all at once when the professor hands you the test.
Predicting your response, answering the questions you know first, and being well prepared should all help you settle down so you can focus and do your best on a test. Try these things to help you overcome normal test anxiety. If you become so anxious that you actually get up and leave the room, or are having test anxiety associated with a disability, this might be a more complex situation and should seek professional help.
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Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national-level higher education consultant based in Pittsburgh. He has worked with students, families, colleges, and other professionals for more than 10 years. He specializes in understanding why students can end up doing poorly in college, as well as what can be done to address the issues.