Skip to main content.

Test Anxiety

It's easy to imagine the scene: you've been studying for days--maybe pulled an all-nighter--and now it's 10 minutes before a big exam in a class that's been difficult for you all semester. You sit down at a desk and as other students enter the classroom you hear the buzz of them talking: "Did you study?", "I'm so nervous", "I'm definitely going to fail!" The more they talk, the more your own anxiety rises. Soon your hands are shaking and you feel your face getting hot and a little bit sweaty. By the time the professor has passed out the test your stomach is in knots, and you DEFINITELY don't remember ANYTHING you studied. . . . . . .

While it is normal and even helpful to have a little bit of anxiety about taking a test, the above description shows how extreme test anxiety can interfere with your ability to demonstrate what you know and succeed in your classes. Some students experience mainly physical symptoms of test anxiety (headaches, nausea, faintness, changes in body temperature, etc. ) and others experience more emotional symptoms (crying easily, feeling irritable, getting frustrated quickly, etc. ). Another manifestation of test anxiety is in cognitive symptoms. It can lead to difficulty in memory retrieval and ability to organize thoughts. It can also make it hard to read questions accurately and pick out key words or themes. These anxiety-induced cognitive changes can lead to poor test performance, thus increasing anxiety about future tests, leading to a vicious cycle of anxiety and poor performance.

So what causes this kind of extreme test anxiety? One thing that can cause test anxiety is lack of preparation. If you are somebody who has trouble managing your time, organizing your notes, or maintaining good study habits, you are likely feeling unprepared. Additionally, you may have stayed up all night cramming before the exam, leaving you sleep deprived and stressed. One thing that's important to know is that memory consolidation (transfer of information from short term to long term memory) only happens during sleep. So if you cram all night before a test and don't sleep, you may not remember anything you studied. Obviously this would leave you feeling unprepared and probably more anxious about the test.

Aside from poor preparation, another thing that can cause test anxiety is a more generalized tendency to worry. This can be elicited by poor performance on past exams ("I never do well"), worry about how other students are doing ("I'm going to be the last one done again--I'm so stupid!"), and/or worry about the negative consequences of failure ("My family will be disappointed in me"). These kinds of worries leave students focused on their fears instead of on the test at hand. They increase anxiety by maintaining a negative focus.

Given these problematic effects of extreme test anxiety, it becomes very important for those who are prone to this kind of anxiety to learn skills for coping with it. Below is a list of 5 steps you can take to manage test anxiety.

1) Develop your study skills. This involves developing ways to manage your time effectively by using a planner, starting to study early for a test instead of waiting until the night before, and giving yourself breaks. It also involves paying attention to how you learn best. For example, some people concentrate better in the morning and some in the evening. Some people use flashcards while others copy over their notes. Sometimes studying in a group can be helpful while other times studying alone is more effective. You might need to try several study tactics before you find one that works best for you. Even then, you may find that you need to alter this depending on the course and materials that you're studying.

2) Pay attention to your study environment. This might sound like an odd suggestion as a way to manage test anxiety, but the reason I include it here is that the environment in which you study can have a big impact on how efficient your study time is. Creating a study environment that's conducive to learning might involve: taking steps to minimize distracting noise, setting boundaries with friends/family so that they don't interrupt you (through visits, phone calls, or IMs), making sure that you're comfortable but not too comfortable (you don't want to fall asleep), and ensuring that you have all the study materials you will need at hand. There is also some evidence showing that learning can be "state dependent". This means that creating a study environment (a "state") that is similar to the environment in which you will take the test (similar to a classroom) might help you recall study material during the test.

3) Mentally prepare for test anxiety. If you know that you are someone who tends to get anxious around exams, you can anticipate this and go into the situation prepared. This entails staying focused on what you have to do, taking one step at a time and not mentally jumping ahead, and paying attention to the internal messages you are telling yourself. If you were to write down the thoughts running through your mind just prior to the test would they be positive ("I am going to do the best I can", "I have studied for this", etc), or negative ("I don't know anything", "I never do well", etc. )? Positive self-messages tend to reduce anxiety while negative ones can increase it.

4) Learn specific skills to cope with anxiety when it comes up. There are some concrete things that you can do when you feel anxious that can help reduce your stress level and clear your mind. One skill you can utilize is deep breathing. This involves taking long, slow, deep breaths through your nose. Slowing down your breath can slow down your heart rate which, in turn, calms your body. Once your body feels relaxed it can send the message to your mind that things are okay. If you are having trouble slowing your breath, try closing your eyes for a minute or two while you breathe.

A second skill you can use that I alluded to above is using positive self-statements. These are positive messages that you internally say to yourself as a way to stay focused and calm. They might be things like "I studied for this test and know a lot of the material", "I am going to take my time on this test and read questions carefully", "My friends and family will love me no matter how I do on this test", etc. The important thing about these statements is that they should be positive and also that they should feel TRUE. Saying things like "I will ace this test and get an A in the class" if you have a D average is not realistic and will therefore only increase your anxiety.

Thirdly, there are some specific test-taking skills that you can learn. These will vary depending on the subject matter and type of test, but almost always include reading questions slowly and carefully and making sure you understand what the question is asking. They might also include using a process of elimination (for multiple choice), answering questions you're sure of first and then returning to those you're unsure of, and budgeting your test taking time. If you find yourself losing focus during the test or becoming increasingly anxious, you can try changing positions, taking a break, or closing your eyes and breathing deeply for a minute or two.

5) Reward yourself. After a test, take a minute or two to review what strategies you used to calm your anxiety and how well they worked. Once you have done this, give yourself a reward for completing the test to the best of your ability. You can schedule a date with a friend, a meal, or something else that would be fun for you. This kind of reward takes the focus off of the stress of the test and can reduce any remaining anxiety.

Back to top of screen