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Test Anxiety

Generally, we all experience some level of nervousness or tension before tests or other important events in our lives. A little nervousness can actually help motivate us; however, too much of it can become a problem especially if it interferes with our ability to prepare for and perform on tests.
Dealing with Anxiety
The first step is to distinguish between two types of anxiety. If your anxiety is a direct result of lack of preparation, consider it a normal, rational reaction. However, if you are adequately prepared but still panic, "blank out", and/or overreact, your reaction is not rational. While both of these anxieties may be considered normal (anyone can have them) it is certainly helpful to know how to overcome their effects.
Preparation Can Help
Preparation is the best way to minimize rationale anxiety. Consider the following: 
Avoid "cramming" for a test. Trying to master a semester's worth of material the day before the test is a poor way to learn and can easily produce anxiety. This is not the time to try to learn a great deal of material.
Combine all the information you have been presented throughout the semester and work on mastering the main concepts of the course.
When studying for the test, ask yourself what questions may be asked and try to answer them by integrating ideas from lectures, notes, texts, and supplementary readings.
If you are unable to review all of the material given throughout the semester, select important portions that you can cover well. Set a goal of presenting your knowledge of this information on the test.
Changing Your Attitude
Improving your perspective of the test-taking experience can actually help you enjoy studying and may improve your performance. Don't overplay the importance of the grade - it is not a reflection of your self-worth nor does it predict your future success.  Try the following:
  1. Remember that the most reasonable expectation is to try to show as much of what you know as you can.
  2. Remind yourself that a test is only a test - there will be others.
  3. Avoid thinking of yourself in irrational, all-or-nothing terms.
  4. Reward yourself after the test - take in a movie, go out to eat, or visit with friends.
Don't Forget the Basics
Students preparing for tests often neglect basic biological, emotional, and social needs. To do your best, you must attend to these needs. Think of yourself as a total person - not just a test taker. Remember to:
  1. Continue the habits of good nutrition and exercise. Continue your recreational pursuits and social activities all contribute to your and physical well-being.
  2. Follow a moderate pace when studying; vary your work when possible and take breaks when needed.
  3. Get plenty of sleep the night before the test - when you are overly tired you will not function at your absolute best.
  4. Once you feel you are adequately prepared for the test, do something relaxing.
The Day of the Test
To be able to do your best on the day of the test we suggest the following:
  1. Begin your day with a moderate breakfast and avoid coffee and cokes if you are prone to "caffeine jitters." Even people who ususally manage caffeine well may feel light-headed and jittery when indulging on the day of a test.
  2. Try to do something relaxing the hour before the test - last minute cramming will cloud your mastering of the overall concepts of the course.
  3. Plan to arrive at the test location early - this will allow you to relax and to request a seat located away from doors, windows, and other distractions. Avoid classmates who generate anxiety and tend to upset your stability. If waiting for the test to begin causes anxiety, distract yourself by reading a magazine or book.
During the Test: Basic Strategies
Before you begin answering the questions on the test, take a few minutes and do the following:
  1. First review the entire test; then read the directions twice. Try to think of the test as an opportunity to show everyone what you kno; then begin to organize your time efficiently. Work on the easiest portions of the test first.
  2. Multiple choice questons, read all the options first, then eliminate the most obvious. Unsure of the correct response? Rely on your first impression, then move on quickly. Beware of tricky qualifying words such as "only," "always," or "most."
  3. Do not rush through the test. Recheck your answers only if you are not anxious.
During the Test: Anxiety Control
Curb excess anxiety in any of the following ways:
  1. Tell yourself "I can be anxious later, now is the time to take the exam."
  2. Focus on answering the question, not on your grade or others' performances.
  3. Counter negative thoughts with other, more valid thoughts like, "I don't have to be perfect." Tense and relax muscles throughout your body; take a couple of slow deep breaths and try to maintain a positive attitude.
After the Test
Whether you did well or not, be sure to follow through on the reward you promised yourself and enjoy it! Try not to dwell on all the mistakes you might have made.
More Managing Test Anxiety
What does test anxiety feel like?
  • You may feel physical symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, faintness, feeling too hot or too cold, etc.
  • You may also feel emotional, wanting to cry or laugh too much, or feel angry, helpless, etc.
  • The major problem with test anxiety is its effect on thinking ability; it can cause you to blank out or have racing thoughts that are hard to control.
  • Although you may feel some level of anxiety when writing exams, you CAN cope with that anxiety and bring it down to a manageable level.
What can you do to control test anxiety?
  • Be well prepared for the test.
  • Include as much self-testing in your review as possible.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle: get enough sleep, good nutrition, exercise, some personal "down" time, and a reasonable amount of social interaction.
  • As you anticipate the exam, think positively, e.g.,"I can do OK on this exam.  I've studied and know my stuff."
  • Do some serious "thought stopping" if you find that you are worrying a lot, mentally comparing yourself to your peers or thinking about what others may say about your performance on this exam.
  • Before you go to bed on the night before the exam, make sure you gather anything that you will need for the exam -- pen, pencil, ruler, eraser, calculator, etc.  Double check the time of the exam and the location.
  • Don't talk about the test with classmates immediately beforehand, if you know it raises your anxiety level.
  • Don't hesitate to ask for clarification from the proctor if you have questions about directions, procedures, etc., rather than letting anxiety build up because you are not sure about what you are supposed to do.
  • Develop an aggressive, yet realistic attitude.
  • If you go blank and can't think of anything to write, go on to another question or another part of the test. On an essay, jot down anything you can recall on scratch paper to stimulate your memory and get your mind working.
  • During the test, if you notice that you are not thinking well or are tight. Pause, lay your test aside, and take several slow, deep breaths. Concentrate on your breathing. Do this if you notice that you are worrying excessively about one problem, not reading carefully, forgetting information you know.
  • PAY ATTENTION TO THE TEST, not to yourself or others. Don't waste time worrying, doubting yourself, wondering how other people are doing, blaming yourself, etc. Don't worry about what you should have done; pay attention to what you can do now.



The tips above are suggested in material from The University of Texas Learning Center, SDC's Learning Skills Services: The University of Western Ontario (November 2002), The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois (1996), and were originally compiled by Susan Hayes, a friend and colleague, when she was an assistant principal at Hartselle High School.  Thanks Susan!