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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Test Anxiety

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Good News about Test Anxiety

Rest assured that it is normal to feel some degree of anxiety in any situation in which you are being evaluated. Examples of such evaluative situations include job interviews, athletic try-outs, first dates -- and, of course, tests. Some degree of anxiety in evaluative situations actually helps performance -- that is, performance is best at moderate levels of anxiety, rather than at either very high or very low levels. The good news in this for test anxious students is that your goal is merely to bring your anxiety down to a middle range, not to eliminate it entirely. This is an attainable goal for most test anxious students and many students can accomplish this on their own by using some of the approaches described below.

Although individuals have innate temperamental differences in how prone they are to anxiety, for the most part test anxiety is a learned behavior. The good news in this is that anything that is learned can be unlearned. In short, there are many concrete and specific things you can do to change your tendency to become overly anxious on tests.

What Test Anxiety Is and Is Not

Test anxiety, simply defined, is when your anxiety prevents you from showing the professor what you have learned and know. It is not the same as being anxious during a test because you are unprepared or do not understand the material. Although both the test anxious and the unprepared student will be anxious in the test situation, the causes, and therefore the solutions, differ.

Unpreparedness anxiety is best addressed by better preparation, e.g., improved study habits and time management, tutoring, appropriate course selection, etc. Bona fide test anxiety, on the other hand, can be lessened by behavioral relaxation techniques and cognitive strategies (i.e., changing self-defeating thought patterns), as well as by improved study, time management and test-taking skills.

Tips for Overcoming Test Anxiety

  • Nip it in the Bud
    Anxiety is like a snowball going down a hill -- it starts small and slowly and gradually builds up size and speed. If you want to stop a snowball going down a hill, the best place to do it is as close to the top of the hill as possible. So it is with test anxiety. It is critical to nip it in the bud, and stop it before it builds up steam. To do this you need to develop an "early warning system" -- you need to be able to recognize the early telltale signs and symptoms that your anxiety is starting to snowball. These signs will be different for different people, but examples are sweaty palms, feeling nauseous, headaches, starting to think negative thoughts, etc. When you detect that your anxiety is starting to build, try some of the techniques below.
  • Use a behavioral relaxation technique to relax your body
    Behavioral techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and visualization can help you achieve a physiological state of relaxation, when you do, your mind will follow suit. Like any skill, relaxation techniques have to be regularly practiced for you to become adept at using them to relax.
    • Deep breathing: This is a simple technique that you can do unobtrusively in a classroom. Take a deep breath from your diaphragm and hold it for several seconds. Then, slowly exhale and experience the tension leaving your body. Repeat several times. If you silently say the word "calm" or "relax" to yourself as you exhale, over time thinking of this word alone will be able to evoke a sense of relaxation.
    • Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves first tensing then relaxing different muscle groups in your body, one by one (hence the term "progressive"). Physiologically, muscles actually relax (i.e., elongate) more if they are first tensed. If you experience tension in certain parts of your body when you are anxious (e.g., your neck, back, shoulders, forehead, arms), relax those muscle groups one by one: tense the muscle group and hold for a slow count of ten, then relax to a slow count of ten and feel the tension flowing out.
    • Imagery: Imagery means using your imagination to help you relax. You can do this in two ways.
      • Coping imagery (mental rehearsal): Sports psychologists often have athletes picture themselves performing on the court or field as they would like. Imagine yourself staying relaxed and performing well on the test.
      • Visualization: Place yourself in a relaxing scene, imagine yourself at the lake, or in front of a cozy fire. Use all five of your senses to make the scene come alive.
  • Use a cognitive approach to relax your mind
    It is essential to talk to yourself in ways that lower rather than raise anxiety, to develop some "counter-propaganda" to challenge the negative predictions with which you are indoctrinating yourself. You need to talk to yourself in ways that change your self-talk from negative to positive, from despairing to realistically hopeful. Remember, test anxiety is when your worries get in the way of showing your professor what you know -- so, by definition, YOU DO KNOW THE MATERIAL, at least sufficiently to pass the test if not necessarily to ace it, and you need to remind yourself of this.
    • Ask yourself how real is the threat?
      Anxiety is a normal, natural biological and psychological reaction to a real or perceived threat. This means that the test anxious student perceives the test as a threat of some sort. If you are prone to test anxiety, an important step in overcoming it is to try and discover in what way you perceive the test as a threat to you. For example, a test might be perceived as a threat to your self-esteem, parental approval, financial aid, or career plans. Next, try and rationally evaluate if the threat is as real or as serious as you think. Most test-anxious students exaggerate the "threat" posed by a test. Ask yourself: Am I really a worthless person if I don't get a good grade on this test? Will my parents really disown me? Will this one test, in one course, in one semester really derail my whole future?
    • Identify and challenge core negative beliefs and self-defeating thoughts.
      The test anxious student essentially believes "I can't do this" I'm stupid and so I'm going to do horribly on this test and when I do, that will be absolutely terrible and I won't be able to handle it." It is this core belief and the self-defeating thoughts that flow from it (and not the test itself) that raises anxiety, which in turns lowers performance -- which only strengthens the core belief for the next time round, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, this core belief and its associated thoughts must be aggressively challenged for anxiety to go down.

      In that core belief you can detect both negativity (I can't do this, I won't be able to handle it) and catastrophizing or blowing things out of proportion (doing poorly on the test is terrible). You can challenge negativity by reminding yourself that you do understand the material, are not stupid, can do it, have done well on similar tests in the past, have coped with disappointments in the past just fine, etc. You can challenge catastrophizing by reminding yourself that it would not be the end of the world to fail a test, that one test doesn't determine one's whole life, that there's a difference between being a someone-who-failed-a-something-at-a-sometime vs. being a "failure," and that there is difference between disappointment and despair. No one is happy if they don't do as well on a test as they'd like and it's okay to be disappointed -- but don't escalate discontent into despondent desperation.

      Another core belief some test anxious students have is "I must achieve competence or perfection in all that I do". Perfectionism is, of course, impossible to obtain, and so to demand it of yourself or to equate "success" with "perfect performance" is to guarantee "failure". Challenge perfectionism by saying "I don't need to be perfect to be okay" I just need to do the best that I can and give this test my best shot under current circumstances.

  • Use sound study and test-taking skills.

    Here are a few tips:

    • Don't study with classmates if doing so raises your anxiety. Do study with classmates if doing so lowers your anxiety.
    • If you remember one thing and one thing only from this web page, remember this: avoid cramming. If you are prone to test anxiety, frantic, last minute studying is virtually guaranteed to crank your anxiety up. Start studying for a test far enough in advance (perhaps a few days before the test!) to avoid this.
    • When you are studying for a test, know when to call it a night, stop studying and get some sleep instead of trying to cram a few extra test points into your brain at the expense of adequate rest.
    • Read for mastery rather than memory: think about and try to understand what you read and relate it to the rest of the course material, rather than just try to memorize facts and spit them back on the test.
    • On multiple choice tests, first answer all the questions you know and skip over the ones you are unsure off. Then go back through the test a second time and answer the questions about which you really have to think. This way you will be sure to get all the points coming to you.
    • Dress comfortably and in layers for tests. Why is this important? If you are prone to test anxiety, you may misinterpret the physical discomfort that results from being dressed too warmly as symptoms of anxiety and start a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    • Take care of yourself: sleep and eat well.
    • Get some exercise or physical activity. Exercise is a great stress reliever and can help re-charge your mental batteries.