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Test Anxiety

If your student suffers from test anxiety, you are probably familiar with its symptoms and paralyzing effects. Students might be fully prepped going into the test but blank out during the exam, or they could have panic attacks. Fortunately, whatever your student’s particular symptoms may be, there are ways to lower their stress levels. Below, we address a few common questions about test anxiety. 

What does test anxiety look like?

Test anxiety can exhibit a range of symptoms, but all of the symptoms can be categorized as somatic, emotional, or cognitive:

  • Somatic: headache, nausea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, pounding heart, and lightheadedness 
  • Emotional: helplessness, fear, anger, and disappointment
  • Cognitive: negative thoughts about oneself, comparing oneself to others, difficulty concentrating, and blanking out

Where does test anxiety come from?

Test anxiety is a learned behavior. Pretty much every student has at some point stressed out about an exam (and maybe even bombed an exam because they were so stressed), but test anxiety is a recurring type of anxiety that consistently interferes with a student’s general test-taking performance. The condition affects students of all ability and intelligence levels, but it can usually be traced to the same psychological factors:  

  • Viewing test scores as a measure of personal worth
  • Feeling a lack of control
  • Being consistently tested above ability level and feeling that they will never be able to meet expectations
  • Worrying about running out of time
  • Feeling unprepared. Keep in mind that students’ actual preparation level is not a good predictor of test anxiety – it’s how prepared they feel that matters! Unprepared students can definitely develop anxiety, but even the most prepared students can still get anxious if they believe they have not studied enough. 

How should students prepare for tests?

  • Don’t cram – start studying early! I once had a college professor who told us that the night before the exam, we should go out and watch a movie with friends. As strange as it sounds, it’s actually some of the best advice I’ve ever received. Students should start memorizing material and doing practice tests many weeks before the test date and spend the week of the test quizzing themselves to make sure they have everything down pat. This will allow the material to really sink in, and it will give them more confidence going into the test. Plus, if they really do go out to a movie with their friends the night before, it can be a fun, relaxing reminder that the test is not the only thing that matters. 
  • Study and take practice tests in environments that mimic the test-taking environment. Studies have shown that students recall information and perform better on tests that are taken under conditions that match their study conditions. Students should take practice tests at a desk in a quiet room. The more familiar they are with that type of environment, the more they will feel at ease on the test day!
  • Practice healthy habits. The better a student feels in general, the less they will stress about all the ways not feeling great might trip them up! 
    • During the week leading up to the exam, students should get a steady sleep schedule in place. Going to bed and falling asleep at the same time every night will maximize their chances of getting a good night’s sleep before the exam. Getting used to waking up at the time they will need to on the test day will also help ensure that they do not feel groggy during the test. 
    • Eat a nutritious breakfast. High-protein breakfasts are best because they will keep students fuller longer and will not make them crash the way a carb-heavy breakfast might. Students should drink coffee or tea if that is what they would usually do, but if they do not usually drink caffeine, they should NOT drink it on test day! 
  • Make plans for after the test. After the test, life goes on! Students should plan to do something fun after the test. Anticipating that activity can sometimes help them feel better when they get stressed or discouraged during the exam.    

What should my student do if they start to panic during the test?

  • Remember Pavlov’s dog? Students can use the same principle behind Pavlovian conditioning to help themselves relax during tests! Somatic symptoms (shaking hands, pounding heart, shortness of breath, etc.) can be combated with breathing techniques and by visualizing relaxing scenes. Students can start by choosing a cue, such as a mantra or phrase to repeat in their head. Then, they can practice relaxing physically to the cue at home in the weeks leading up to the test. When they start feeling anxious during the test, silently repeating the mantra can help them feel more calm. 
  • Box Breathing! Even Navy SEALS use this one. Try inhaling for four counts, holding the breath for four, exhaling slowly for four, and then leaving your lungs empty for four counts. Then repeat the cycle. If it helps, you can visualize drawing the edges of a square with each new phase of the breath. 
  • If your anxiety manifests as obsessive or spiraling thoughts, sometimes the best thing to do is to bring yourself back to the physical world. Squeezing your arms or legs gently is a great way to do this!
  • Cognitive symptoms can be solved through positive self-talk – but it should be specific! Telling yourself “I can do this” is great, but remembering a time when you were able to do something you thought you couldn’t do is even better. Here is a list of ways that students can re-train their brains to be a little more positive:
    • “I always do poorly on tests.” 
      • “But this time I feel really well prepared, and I think I can do pretty well.”
      • “Actually, I got a 90 on my math test…”
    • “If I don’t get my goal score on this test, I am a failure.”
      • “I think my goal score is within reach, and I’m going to be really excited when I reach it!”
      • “This is an important test, but I can always take it again if I want to try for a higher score.”
      • “This is an important test, but it only measures my skills in three areas. There are tons of other really important things about me that I am good at, such as…”
      • “When I didn’t win that sports championship, I wasn’t a failure – plus, I learned something!”
      • “The test has so many trick questions!”
        • “I have the tools I need to find the answers, and I prepared well. I have seen their trick questions before and know what they generally look like.”
      • “There are an impossible number of things to know for this test!”
        • “I know most of the material, which means I can still do really well!”
  • If seeing everyone else scribbling away furiously makes your student panic and feel inferior, remind them to ignore other students. Other students don’t necessarily know the answers. Plus, the answers the other students put down have no effect at all on your student’s score – your student knows a lot of material and can do great! Students with anxiety disorders can also benefit from accommodations that allow them to test in small groups. 
  • Does your student have a lucky charm? They should bring it to the test! Even Olympic athletes have been known to bring lucky stuffed animals or shoelaces to competitions. If they have a lucky shirt, a lucky scrunchie, or a lucky pencil, they should make sure to wear it or pack it in their bag the night before. 

My student has tried some of these techniques, but they aren’t really working. 

  • These techniques take time – especially reframing negative thought cycles. Sometimes, they just need a little more practice. However, talking to a counselor is sometimes the best option for students. Students who are highly perfectionistic, anxious, or who have low self-esteem usually benefit most from talking to a counselor. While test anxiety can be limited to test-taking, it is sometimes just one manifestation of a larger issue. Counselors and therapists can help students work through the causes of their anxiety and channel their desire to do well into more positive and effective thought processes.
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