Conquering Test Anxiety


Posted in: Grade School, Teenagers, Young Adults

Topics: Anxiety

Jenny thought she was prepared for her tenth grade AP Physics exam. She hadn’t missed a single class, consistently participated in group discussions, completed all her homework and was diligent about studying. Her confidence about her preparation was fairly good—until she walked into the classroom. It was then that the nervousness started, and it only got worse as she started reading through the test questions. She froze, feeling so nervous that she wasn’t able to answer the questions she had known so well the night before.

Jasper, a seventh grader, had a similar experience during his English exam, although his preparation for the exam was quite different from Jenny’s. The test was on The Great Gatsby, and Jasper hadn’t finished the book. Although he knew the answers to many of the questions, he didn’t know the answers to all of them. He soon became so nervous that he turned the test back into his teacher with only two questions answered. The next time he took an English exam, he made sure that he had completed the book—but he still found himself having the same anxiety despite being more prepared.

Jenny and Jasper experienced something common to many students—test anxiety. Almost every student has experienced this at one time or another, but for some students, the feeling is so overwhelming and intense that it significantly affects their performance. They may feel physiological arousal, such as sweaty palms, an upset stomach and racing heart; feelings of worry and dread; self-deprecating thoughts; and, tension. For a small percentage of students, this problem can be chronic, affecting their performance in many subjects, and regardless of their level of preparation.

Certain students are more likely to experience test anxiety, and if you find that your child is experiencing this kind of anxiety, it’s important to know which category he or she falls into, as the treatment plan for each may differ. The most likely categories are:

  • Students who have a history of general anxiety, who worry a lot, or who are perfectionists. These students may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy to treat the underlying symptoms of anxiety.
  • Students who aren’t prepared to take the test. Preparation is the best anxiety-reducer, regardless of the situation. The opposite is also true—not being prepared to do something can cause even the “coolest” person to become nervous. For these students, preparation is the key to getting control of the anxiety.
  • Students who have an underlying learning disability or attention deficit. Students who have academic challenges are more likely to experience anxiety around tests. For these students, finding appropriate test accommodations, such as extra time or the ability to take the test in a quiet location, may serve to curb the anxiety.

Regardless of the cause of the anxiety, there are some general guidelines that can help all students who find themselves worrying about tests. Feel free to pass along the following advice to your child.

Before the test, it’s important to:

  1. Be prepared. Good study skills and habits are important. It’s also important to attend class and keep accurate notes. If poor preparation is a chronic problem, getting tutored or taking a class in study skills can help you gain the skills you need to be prepared.
  2. Get enough sleep. A recent study found that people who got 8 hours of sleep before taking a math test were nearly three times more likely to figure out a problem than people who stayed awake all night studying.
  3. Talk to the teacher or professor. Ask them for suggestions on how best to study for a particular test, such as what material will be covered, or whether the test format will be essay, multiple choice, or fill-in-the-blank.
  4. Be aware of negative thoughts and challenge them with logic. Don’t say things such as, “I know I’m going to fail.” Instead, say, “How do I know I’m going to fail?” and, “Just because I was anxious on my last exam, doesn’t mean I’ll be anxious this time.”
  5. Approach the exam with confidence. Use whatever strategies that work best for you: visualization, logic, talking to yourself, over preparation, or participating in a study group.

During the test, guidelines that can help you be successful include:

  1. Read the directions carefully. If you don’t understand the directions, ask the teacher to clarify.
  2. Do the simple questions first to build your confidence for the harder questions. Focus on the question at hand, and don’t let your mind wander to what you don’t know.
  3. Watch your thinking during the test. Be aware of negative thoughts, as they may contribute to anxiety. If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts (“I’m going to flunk this!”), replace them with more positive messages (“I’ve studied hard and know this material, so I’ll do the best I can.”).
  4. Focus on what you’re doing—not what your classmates are doing. Just because other students are finishing the exam and you’re not yet done, doesn’t mean that you won’t do well. Don’t panic if others finish before you do.
  5. For essay exams, organize your thoughts in an outline first.
  6. If you find yourself getting anxious during the test, relax and take slow, deep breaths. Think about the next step, and acknowledge that you are doing your best.

Above all, students should always expect some anxiety. It’s proof that you want to do the best you can, and, if harnessed correctly, it can provide you with the energy to do so. When the test is over, reward yourself for having tried. Don’t go over the test questions with others, as it may just increase your anxiety. Learning to manage test anxiety can take time, but if you find that you’re consistently experiencing significant anxiety, seek help from your school counselor. Talk to your teacher(s) so that they’re aware of your problem well in advance of the first exam. They may, too, have additional suggestions.

Learning to cope with test anxiety can help you acquire strategies to handle general stress, and that can be a valuable skill in many situations—not just those where you are taking an exam.

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Ellen Braaten, PhD

Ellen Braaten, PhD

Ellen Braaten, PhD, is executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at  Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and former co-director for the MGH Clay Cente...

To read full bio click here.