Combatting Test Anxiety

girl studying


Most students experience some level of anxiety during an exam. However, when anxiety begins to affect exam performance it has become a problem. In order to combat the anxiety, it is important to understand the causes and then devise strategies to overcome them.

Symptoms of Test Anxiety

If you experience any of the following symptoms while taking a test, you are dealing with test anxiety:

  • Nervousness:
    • Having difficulty reading and understanding the questions on the exam.
    • Having difficulty organizing your thoughts.
    • Having difficulty retrieving key words and concepts when answering essay questions.
    • Doing poorly on an exam even though you know the material.
  • Mental Blocking:
    • Going blank on questions.
    • Remembering the correct answers as soon as the exam is over.
  • Physical Symptoms:
    • perspiration
    • sweaty palms
    • headache
    • upset stomach
    • rapid heart beat
    • tense muscles

Causes of Test Anxiety

  • Lack of preparation as indicated by:
    • cramming the night before the exam
    • poor time management
    • failure to organize text information
    • poor study habits
  • Worrying about the following:
    • how friends and other students are doing
    • the negative consequences of failure
    • grades and your personal worth
    • the inability to change your life situation
    • being embarrassed or feeling “dumb”
    • not enough time to study
    • not enough time to take the test
    • being “in over your head”
  • Past experiences including:
    • poor performance on tests
    • anxiety on prior tests
    • going “blank” on previous exams
    • failure

Preparing for Tests

Preparation is paramount in achieving test success and reducing test anxiety. This preparation consists of two parts, before the test and after the test.

Before the Test

  • Remember your goal. Make sure you are continuously moving closer to achieving it.
  • Learn and practice good time management and avoid:
    • laziness
    • procrastination
    • day dreaming
  • Keep up with your assignments so that when preparing for a test you will be reviewing familiar material. Frantic, last-minute cramming of new material usually results in a faulty memory.
  • To avoid completely rereading textbook assignments later, take bullet-point notes as you read, on main ideas, concepts, examples, supporting details, key words and other important information.
  • Organize the information in your notes and textbooks by making charts, mappings, diagrams and outlines.
  • Study and practice on questions from your textbook, homework and previous exams.
  • Do not be afraid to ask questions about material you do not grasp. Get tutoring assistance if you need it. You will not accurately remember information unless you first understand it.
  • Challenge yourself. Don’t do only that which comes easily to you; work through the more difficult material as well. Exams cover a wide-range of material from the simple to the demanding.
  • Practice ongoing review by looking over the material for each course at least once a week during the semester. Go over class notes, exercises, text notes, etc.
  • In reviewing, spend a greater amount of time on the material that is least familiar, and review briefly the material that is most familiar.
  • Prepare a list of likely test questions and make certain that you can give the correct answers to each in your own words.
  • Practice explaining the difficult material aloud. If you can’t explain it, you don’t know it.
  • Concentrate on remembering specific details (who, when, where) when studying for an objective test; concentrate on understanding broad concepts (what, why, how) when studying for an essay exam.
  • Ask the instructor what material will be covered on an examination – assignments, class lectures, outside readings, laboratory experiments, etc.
  • Review likely test questions with other students in small study groups of two to four members after each has first studied independently.
  • Don’t give up. Once you quit trying, you quit learning.
  • Complete long-term projects well in advance of scheduled exams so that your time will be free for review.
  • Do not stay up all night “cramming” for an exam. This endangers your test grade. You will be able to think more logically if you get a reasonable amount of sleep the night before a major test.
  • Study and know the material well enough that you can recall it even if you are under stress.

After the Test

  • Review, correct and keep returned assignments, quizzes and exams. Ask your instructor for help if you are uncertain about the correct answer to a question you missed.
  • Study your instructor’s “testing technique” so you will know the type of questions preferred and what information is emphasized (from the lecture, textbook, outside materials, etc.). Utilize this information when studying for future tests in the class.
  • Analyze your studying, testing preparation and test-taking skills. What went well? What do you need to improve? Make the appropriate adjustments to ensure greater success on the next test.

Test-Taking Strategies

Once you have the test in your hands, you need to take control; do not let the test control you. Test anxiety begins to creep in when you relinquish control and allow your mind to wander from the material in front of you.

  • Focus on remaining calm, relaxed, and positive. Check your breathing often. Check your neck and shoulder muscles.
  • Use relaxation techniques; for example, take long deep breaths to relax the body and reduce stress.
  • Take a few moments to look over the exam, reading directions and noting point values. (Remember to check whether or not there are questions on the back side of the pages).
  • Jot down those items you are trying to not forget so you can relax your mind and allow it to focus on your answers.
  • Put your full concentration solely on the question at hand. Do not think about the previous questions nor the questions coming up.
  • Do not spend too much time on any one question.
  • Write down whatever you know. Do not leave questions blank. Many instructors give partial credit, so any points are better than none.
  • Proofread your exam. Check for omissions and check to see if you have made any typical errors.
  • Allow yourself the entire test period to finish the exam. Do not allow those who leave early to bother you.
  • Use only positive self-talk. Maintain a cheerful attitude.


Replacing Negative Thoughts with Positive Thoughts

Is This You Before a Test?
Are you thinking?Challenge that thinking with this:
I never do well on tests. Sometimes I don’t do as well as I’d like on tests; I can only do the best I can today and get help before my next one.
My mind always goes blank. My mind doesn't always go blank, but the more I think this, the harder it is to focus.  I’ll just start reading the test again, write down anything I can recall, and move on to what I do know.
I should have studied more. I can’t do anything about that now, but I can study more next time. 
This is half my grade; if I don’t pass, I might as well drop the class! Getting panicked now will only make things worse.  I Just need to stay in the “now,” relax and do what I can.
I can’t concentrate!  I’m too stressed. I need to take a moment to slow down.  I’ll take some deep breaths and remember that it is far easier to concentrate and retrieve information when I am calmer.

During a Test?
When you think this:Try this:
OMG!  I don’t know any of this! I do know some of this and that is what I need to focus on.
I’m running out of time, I’ll never finish. Don’t panic.  Just keep going on the ones I do know.
I’m going to fail. I don’t know that I will fail, but I will fail if I continue to think this.  I just need to do the best I can!
I can’t be the last one out.  Last one out is the dumbest! Oh stop.  The last one out is only the last one out.  People who want to do their best are also sometimes last.
I just can’t think…why did I ever take this course? I took this course because I need it!  Now is not the time to get stuck in these thoughts.  I’ll take a few deep breaths and do the best I can.

After a Test?
When you think this:Try this:
I’m just not cut out for college. It’s not so black and white.  Neither one test nor one class will make or break my education.  I need to focus on my strengths and work harder.
I blew it.  I feel like a failure. Feelings are not facts.  Just because I feel like a failure doesn't mean I am a failure.
I’ll never graduate on time and I’ll never get the kind of job I want. Never is an over generalization. I need to focus right now. One step at a time to work toward my goal. I’ll sit down with an advisor to figure out how to do better in the future.
My family (boyfriend/ girlfriend, teacher, etc.) will really be disappointed in me. Well, I’m disappointed too.  I can only try to work harder to improve my grade.  My family (etc.) will still be supportive of me.

If you feel that test anxiety is interfering with success, ask for help! Contact the ACE Tutoring Center at 636-922-8444 or the campus Mental Health Counselor at 636-922-8571.