If you experience test anxiety, you're not alone. In fact, experiencing some amount of test anxiety is actually pretty typical, and some would even argue that having a little anxiety helps motivate us to study beforehand, stay alert during the test, and focus on the task at hand. That being said, though, high levels of anxiety can interfere with concentration and the ability to perform well on tests. Everyone's test anxiety experience is unique, and so levels of anxiety will differ from person to person, just as they'll differ from subject to subject and test to test, with all of it somewhat dependent on the value each person places on the test and their belief in their personal ability to do well.
According to Mann & Lash (2004), anxiety is a natural human response and is indicative of our fight-or-flight defense mechanism. If we think about fight-or-flight in relationship to test-taking, the test itself is the threat, and our body's reactions are often our attempts to put distance between us and the threat. Fight-or-flight in an exam doesn't always (or often) yield the results that will "save" us, though. Which can be especially challenging in the moments where we may feel as though our worth (or our standing/position/ability) is dependent upon the test and how we perform. Let's take a quick pause here, because yes, tests matter. And yes, within this page we offer you some ideas and strategies that will hopefully help you to better navigate test anxiety when you encounter it (and also better prepare for the test in the first place). But throughout it all, please remember that you are so much more than the test, and that everything you experience in your test-taking is information you can take and use going forward, to make informed and intentional changes to your strategies and processes and approaches. That you've recognized your test anxiety to be more of a hindrance than an effective energy/focus aid is an awesome step towards learning how you can mitigate that anxiety and perform on future tests in the way that you hope.
First things first, though: there are a few types of anxiety that you might experience during a test:
Physiological anxiety, which may appear as a high heart rate, excessive sweating, tension, or nausea
Cognitive anxiety, which may appear as difficulty concentrating or focusing on questions; being easily distracted by other things/people in the room; and the feeling of “going blank” during the test and not remembering what you studied
Emotional anxiety, which can present itself in the form of negative thoughts; feelings of fear, anger, and helplessness; or uncontrollable laughing or crying (Mann & Lash, 2004)
Again, you may experience some of these feelings or actions in amounts that you're able to tolerate; perhaps they're annoying (like feeling sick, or noticing negative self-talk) but you're still able to engage with the exam content and provide the answers that you're being asked to. You may, however, find that, within the above anxiety types, you're not able to reign yourself in (laughing/crying uncontrollably, difficulty focusing/concentrating, etc.). And this is where we want to equip you with strategies to use ahead of time, as well as strategies to use in the moment, to get through that test and feel better doing it.
Before the test, it's going to be important that you prepare for the exam. We're not going to go into great detail about test prep here, as you can access our effective test prep content to find our top test prep strategies. We will say that so many of our conversations with students about test anxiety end up tracking back to a student's test prep, and that often students leave our space with a new set of active studying strategies to try, as well as new ideas for how they're going to plan their prep out (starting earlier, studying over the course of multiple days, being specific, etc.). If you want to talk about this stuff, definitely come in and see us.
If you're experiencing test anxiety that's disrupting your ability to perform, you might consider the following strategies in the moment.
Try deep breathing. When we're feeling anxious, our breath may quicken and also become shallower. When you notice your anxiety, or as you work to keep your anxiety at bay, take 2 to 3 deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling so your abdomen expands and contracts. Deep breathing like this can trigger the body's relaxation response, which can reduce your feelings of anxiety and help you to regain focus.
Consciously relax. Try to relax muscles in your shoulders, arms, neck, legs, etc., or to alternate tensing and relaxing your muscles. By relaxing your body, you may be able to also relax your mind and approach the test with more calm and comfort.
Decrease distractions. Know where you're comfortable in the testing room, and know what distracts you in the space/test. Arrive early to the room so you can choose a seat where you'll be least distracted (maybe in the front of the room, maybe near a pillar, maybe away from a window, etc.) a seat in the front corner away from the door or in a back corner where you can turn toward the wall. Think about how you feel if people get up and leave the exam before you; if this increases your anxiety, try to sit yourself in a spot where you have less opportunity to witness it.
Engage in positive self-talk. If you catch yourself thinking about failing the test, or not knowing an answer, or what this means about your intelligence or your future success and happiness, tell yourself (in your head) to stop thinking that way. And really, think to yourself: Hold on. Stop, please. Or whatever it is that will help you to interrupt that thought. Then, replace those negative thoughts with a positive message like “I can do this" or "I am prepared for the test" or "I do belong here" or "I make this place better." Because you do.
Don’t fixate on the clock. Yes, keeping track of time is important for pacing yourself in the test, but don’t let yourself get distracted by checking the clock too frequently. Knowing how long you have, strategize your approach to the test. If you're interested in specific test-type strategies (multiple choice tests, essay tests, problem solving tests), take a look at our test-type strategies here.
Remain calm. Come prepared and on time, and give yourself space from stressed or anxious peers. One research article found that students who did a free write on their thoughts and worries for the test before the test started outperformed a similar group of anxious students who didn’t do the free write (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011). We'll discuss that more below.
Be confident. Trust your preparation and your ability to perform well. And trust that all of this is an opportunity to learn more: more about your test-prep approach, more about your test-taking approach, more about your studying strengths and the areas you can continue to build on.
In the above strategy, remain calm, we mentioned the research around writing out your anxieties before the test, in order to help you get rid of those feelings and free yourself up to better focus, concentrate and perform. Yes! There's so much cool research out there about this strategy, and all it takes to do it is a piece of paper, a writing utensil, and a few minutes before the exam to get onto paper what it is that you're worried/anxious about. You can write anything about how you're feeling, you can write about why the test matters to you and what you're performance means to you, you can write about anything. And then, you can throw it away. So get it out of you, and then get it in the garbage, and then get into the test and be free of all that thought gunk. Try it out!
In addition to the above strategies, as much as you can, monitor your test anxiety in the moment. Pay attention to what exactly makes you anxious, what symptoms you feel, what seems to help to alleviate that anxiety, etc. In working with and through anxiety, it's important to be aware of the types of anxiety you're feeling and how you're choosing to address them, so you can continue to make informed choices about what you're doing to help yourself through these challenging moments.
Also, remember that you don't have to do all of this on your own. We're here to chat with you about test anxiety (and anything else) and what you've done to try to reduce it. Come and see us anytime it works in your schedule: Waldo Hall 125 | Monday through Friday | 9 AM to 5 PM. You don't need an appointment, you can swing by anytime your schedule allows it. We'll be here, and we're ready help.