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Overcoming Test Anxiety Essay

Testing with success series

Overcoming test anxiety

Most students experience some level of anxiety during an exam
However, when anxiety affects exam performance it has become a problem.

General preparation/building confidence:
Review your personal situation and skills
Academic counselors can help you in these areas, or refer to our Guides on the topic:

  • Developing good study habits and strategies (a link to our directory)
  • Managing time
    (dealing with procrastination, distractions, laziness)
  • Organizing material to be studied and learned
    Take a step by step approach to build a strategy and not get overwhelmed
  • Outside pressures
    success/failure consequences (grades, graduation), peer pressure, competitiveness, etc.
  • Reviewing your past performance on tests
    to improve and learn from experience

Test preparation to reduce anxiety:

  • Approach the exam with confidence:
    Use whatever strategies you can to personalize success: visualization, logic, talking to your self, practice, team work, journaling, etc.
    View the exam as an opportunity to show how much you've studied and to receive a reward for the studying you've done
  • Be prepared!
    Learn your material thoroughly and organize what materials you will need for the test. Use a checklist
  • Choose a comfortable location for taking the test
    with good lighting and minimal distractions
  • Allow yourself plenty of time,
    especially to do things you need to do before the test and still get there a little early
  • Avoid thinking you need to cram just before
  • Strive for a relaxed state of concentration
    Avoid speaking with any fellow students who have not prepared, who express negativity, who will distract your preparation
  • A program of exercise
    is said to sharpen the mind
  • Get a good night's sleep
    the night before the exam
  • Don't go to the exam with an empty stomach
    Fresh fruits and vegetables are often recommended to reduce stress.
    Stressful foods can include processed foods, artificial sweeteners, carbonated soft drinks, chocolate, eggs, fried foods, junk foods, pork, red meat, sugar, white flour products, chips and similar snack foods, foods containing preservatives or heavy spices
  • Take a small snack, or some other nourishment
    to help take your mind off of your anxiety.
    Avoid high sugar content (candy) which may aggravate your condition

During the test:

  • Read the directions carefully
  • Budget your test taking time
  • Change positions to help you relax
  • If you go blank, skip the question and go on
  • If you're taking an essay test
    and you go blank on the whole test, pick a question and start writing. It may trigger the answer in your mind
  • Don't panic
    when students start handing in their papers. There's no reward for finishing first

Use relaxation techniques
If you find yourself tensing and getting anxious during the test:

Relax; you are in control.
Take slow, deep breaths

Don't think about the fear
Pause: think about the next step and keep on task, step by step

Use positive reinforcement for yourself:
Acknowledge that you have done, and are doing, your best

Expect some anxiety
It's a reminder that you want to do your best and can provide energy
Just keep it manageable

Realize that anxiety can be a "habit"
and that it takes practice to use it as a tool to succeed

After the test, review how you did

  • List what worked, and hold onto these strategies
    It does not matter how small the items are: they are building blocks to success
  • List what did not work for improvement
  • Celebrate that you are on the road to overcoming this obstacle

Check out local centers and resources in your school for assistance!

If you are aware that you have a problem with test anxiety,
be sure your teacher or instructor knows before any testing begins
(and not the hour before!).
There may be other options to evaluate your knowledge or performance within the subject matter.

See also:

Test Anxiety, Counseling Services, University at Buffalo, State University of New York Virtual Handouts: Test Anxiety, University Counseling Center, George Washington University
Test taking strategies:

Mastering one test | General test preparation | Anticipating test content |
Review tools for tests | Overcoming test anxiety | Organizing for test taking | Cramming | Emergency test preparation

As both an executive function coach and a teacher, I’ve seen students stress over tests again and again.  Over the past few months, for example, I’ve been coaching a student whose emotional regulation around test preparation and peformance is nearly debilitating.  She experiences acute anxiety when a test is coming up and that anxiety carries through until the moment the test is over.  During our work together, we discovered that her test anxiety fluctuated based on the format of the exams: she could excel on multiple choice questions but would bomb the open-response formats.

“What,” I thought to myself, “could be responsible for the different outcomes?”

The answer to my inquiry? Fear of the unknown.

The Teacher's Perspective

As a teacher, I know that many of my colleagues provide study guides for upcoming tests. Others provide clear and specific information to be tested (e.g., material from chapters 4-5).  Both of these approaches reduce a student’s fear of the unknown in the way that teachers guide them to very specific focus areas for test preparation. Unfortunately, open-ended questions are typically shrouded in mystery; many teachers withhold the actual question they intend to ask during the essay portion.  This tactic is often seen as a quintessential indicator of a student’s learning: “If my students have been engaged and attentive all along,” a teacher might reason, “then they should be perfectly able to answer the kind of question I’m asking.”

Makes sense, teacher, makes sense.  The type of question that’s often asked highlights or encapsulates the focus of the most recent learning objectives, and thus should be approachable and answerable to a student who has been actively involved in the class.

The Student's Perspective

To the students, though, this concealment heightens stress and, oftentimes, elicits questions such as, “Why bother preparing for the essay question when I don’t even know what it will be?” or “How can I prepare if I don’t know what to prepare for?”

Good points, student, good points.  And when you feel like studying is hopeless - and thus decide not to study at all- that’s when test anxiety can mount.  The good news is that a student can prepare for the unknown rather than fear it.

Overcoming Test Anxiety

One strategy that we have created for approaching the mysterious essay question is called Any Essay Brainstorm (AEB).  This technique enables students to shift their mindset toward what they do know rather than orbiting the freak-out zone.  The key here is to think like the teacher.  And, because the student is in class with the teacher every day, they are actually in a great position to be able to do just that.  They’ve spent the past few weeks on a certain topic, taken notes, received handouts, engaged in various in-class activities and experienced their teacher emphasize or focus on specific points. All of that engagement in the class makes the unknown much more knowable and, therefore, much less stressful.  Want to see how? Click on the Any Essay Brainstorm link below for a step-by-step guide for how to use AEB and a model from a student who used AEB to prepare for the *seemingly* unknown.

Does your child panic about essay tests? Do you want to help your child to prepare, but don’t know how? We have an effective and easy to use tool for overcoming test anxiety that can help. 


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photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/elbragon/5454267721/">elbragon</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">cc</a>

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