It’s that time of the year again, exam season. The final stretch of the school year can be both an exciting and stressful time for students due to the increase in deadlines and the dreaded test papers. While feeling nervous for exams is normal for many, extreme feelings of anxiety and stress before, during, and after an exam can have unhealthy results. Anxiety can be problematic when it prevents the student from doing their best, causing them to feel anxious all the time or experience extreme levels of anxiousness.
Symptoms of Test Anxiety
Test anxiety looks different from student to student and may include physical and mental symptoms, such as:
- Stomach aches
- Muscle tension
- Feeling overwhelmed
- The feeling of one’s mind going blank
How to Manage Test Anxiety Before a Test
Treating test anxiety begins with adopting the right study tips, preparation methods, and test-taking strategies. By having these practical skills in hand, students are more likely to stay relaxed, focused, and motivated to do well.
- Establish a study routine. Creating a routine, such as studying for an hour after dinner or for half an hour each morning will encourage consistency. When getting started, create a study schedule and set reminders on your phone to help build the habit.
- Create a dedicated study area. Choose an area that is free of distractions where you can set up your study materials and leave them between sessions. When it’s time to study, you won’t spend time searching for something you need. Just sit down, and you’re ready to go.
- Focus on quality, not quantity. It’s more effective to space out many short study sessions rather than having one marathon session. Try studying in half-hour to hour-long blocks with breaks in between. This way, you can stay alert and focused the whole time.
- Set specific study goals. Goals give direction to a study session and provide a sense of accomplishment when completed. Create goals that can realistically be completed in a single study session, such as learning the terms in chapter one, passing the chapter two practice quiz, taking notes on chapter 4, or reviewing class notes for 30 minutes.
No matter how much a student studies using the tips above, a lack of preparation can also negatively affect their performance. Before writing a test, it is best for students to:
- Get enough sleep. Forgoing sleep to study is actually associated with doing more poorly on the test.
- Avoid caffeine. It may be tempting to consume a lot of caffeine to feel alert, but caffeine can exacerbate anxiety.
- Arrive right on time. By doing this, you avoid anxiety-inducing situations, such as seeing others cramming for the test, discussing what will be on the test, and hearing others voice their anxieties.
- Get comfortable. Eat a good meal before the test, wear comfortable clothes, and choose your favorite seat in the classroom.
- Do a “memory dump.” Jot down important terms, formulas, or other relevant information as soon as you receive the test. This creates an information bank you can refer to throughout the test.
- Consider the point values. Skim the test to get an idea of the number of questions and their point values. Start with easier questions to build confidence, and spend more time on questions that are worth more points.
- Take your best guess. Some students with test anxiety experience their minds going “blank” when they get a test, regardless of how much they studied. The good news is they haven’t actually lost all the information they studied, so taking an educated guess will usually be better than leaving an answer blank.
- Check your work. Before handing in the test, go back and check that all answers are correct and complete. Not only will this cut down on errors, but it will also reassure you that every question is answered to the best of your ability.
Besides these general test-taking strategies, the PIRATES test-taking strategy is a seven-letter mnemonic that guides students from the moment they receive the test paper, to the last look-through before they hand it in. Click here to download a FREE handout of these seven strategies.
How to Manage Test Anxiety During and After a Test
Test anxiety during and after an exam is also commonly experienced by students. Using relaxation skills, such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, can help to manage this feeling. However, these techniques are suitable before a test as well and in other anxiety-inducing situations. Students are encouraged to practice them regularly, rather than using them only on the day of a test, for the best results.
Deep breathing reduces anxiety by slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and triggering a feeling of relaxation. Concentrating on breathing also distracts from negative thoughts related to testing. Deep breathing is discreet, effective, and easy to use.
- Sit back in a comfortable position, and close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so. TIP: When learning deep breathing, place one hand on your abdomen so you can feel it rise and fall with each breath.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose for 4 seconds.
- Hold the air in your lungs for 4 seconds (or less if this becomes uncomfortable).
- Pucker your lips and slowly exhale through your mouth for 6 seconds. TIP: For practice, try exhaling through a straw to get in the habit of exhaling slowly.
- Repeat the breathing cycle for at least two minutes.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
This technique teaches students how to slowly tense and relax their muscles, one by one. By doing this, they learn the difference between the feelings of tension and relaxation and learn to consciously relax their muscles to feel calm.
Sit back or lie down in a comfortable position. You may close your eyes.
Beginning at your feet, notice how your muscles feel. Are they tense or relaxed?
Tightly tense the muscles in your feet by curling your toes. Hold the tension for 5-10 seconds.
Release the tension from your feet and allow them to relax. Notice how different the states of tension and relaxation feel.
Move up your body, repeating the cycle of tensing and relaxing each group of muscles. Be sure to practice on the following groups of muscles: legs, pelvis, stomach, chest, back, arms, hands, neck, and face.
Self-talk refers to internal dialogue or statements people say to themselves. Negative self-talk regarding test-taking ability leads to negative feelings about testing, resulting in poorer test performance. Positive self-talk, on the other hand, leads to positive feelings about testing and can improve test performance. Some examples of positive self-talk include:
- “I’m well-prepared for this test.”
- “I’m going to do my best.”
- “I can get through this.”
- “Even though I’m anxious, I can still do well.”
Students can use positive self-talk by creating a list of rational and believable positive statements. These statements should be rehearsed at least once a day, but more practice is better. Here are some ways to use positive self-talk to reduce test anxiety:
- Make it a habit. Place the list of positive statements somewhere prominent — such as on a mirror, desk, or nightstand — and repeat the statements whenever you see the list.
- Link to physical cues. Say a positive statement whenever you pick up your backpack, sit down at a desk, or put on headphones. With enough use, these actions come to trigger a positive thought.
- Use it during the test. Even if you have been practicing positive self-talk, the testing situation will still be stressful, and negative thoughts might return. Positive self-talk can counteract this negative thinking, and increase self-confidence.
- Therapist Aid. (2019, December 2). Treating test anxiety (guide). Therapist Aid. https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-guide/treating-test-anxiety
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2021, September 30). Test anxiety. Learning Center. https://learningcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/tackling-test-anxiety/