By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
Test anxiety is completely normal. Everyone at some point feels nervous before an assessment. After all, it’s no fun to be measured.
A certain level of test anxiety is natural and beneficial because anxiety produces adrenaline, a hormone partially responsible for increased mental and physical performance. But too many nerves could thwart your ability to relax, focus and perform well. The sooner you learn to prevent test anxiety, the sooner you can focus on more important tasks, like learning.
How to prevent test anxiety
1. MAKE A PLAN
Start preparing for your test the day you find out about it. That’s not to say that you have to begin studying the moment you find out, but sit down with your calendar and map out your study schedule as soon as possible. If there are five days before the test, figure out what material you are going to study and on which of the five days – and write this all down.
A huge contributor to test anxiety is feeling rushed, or feeling like we are running out of time. Of course you’re going to feel stressed if you save all your studying for the night before! Map out your plan as early as possible, to feel more in control of what you’re doing and how you’re going to go about doing it. The more we have control over a situation, the calmer we feel.
2. KNOW WHAT’S ON THE TEST
We fear the unknown, yes? So you can significantly decrease your test anxiety by finding out exactly what is going to be on your test. If you don’t know what’s on the test, as your teacher. If you think you already know, confirm with your teacher. When you know precisely what’s going to be on the test, you will know just what to study. And you won’t stress out about studying the wrong material or forgetting to study an important chapter..
3. PREPARE COMPLETELY
If you knew that you were going to be tested on all 50 states and their capitals, then you would study all 50 states and their capitals. And doing so would give you confidence during the test.
Now let’s say that you only study 25 states and their capitals, even though the test is on all 50. (I don’t know why on Earth would you do that.) How would you feel going into the test? Anxious? Of course! When you don’t know the material completely, you will experience test anxiety, guaranteed.
My point is that if you want to feel more confident on test-day, then you absolutely must study the material COMPLETELY. And this is where step 1 (make a plan) and step 2 (know what’s on the test) converge: If you make a schedule of what to study and when, and you know exactly what’s on the test, and you really, really study it, you will decrease your test anxiety. Again, it’s a matter of having control: studying the material puts you in control of it.
4. TEST YOURSELF BEFORE THE TEST
Another analogy: Let’s say your coach wants you to run a mile in 8 minutes or less. If you practice every day and you know you can nail an 8-minute mile, then you won’t be nervous going into the race. But let’s say that instead of practicing every day, you only run randomly here and there, and you never time yourself. (Again, I don’t know why you would do that.) Then how would you feel going into the race? Nervous? Of course! Because you don’t know if you can really do it.
In other words, you’ve got to test yourself before the test to see if you really know the material. You’ve got to pre-test.
There are two approaches to pre-testing, depending on how you set up your study schedule. First, you could test yourself as you study, so after each night of studying you quiz yourself on what you learned. Or, you could quiz yourself at the very end, after you’ve studied for a few days. (Better yet, you could do both!)
There are several ways that you could pre-test yourself, whether you’re doing it as you go or at the end. Here are a few:
- Photocopy old worksheets with the answers blocked out (Whiteout is amazing!) and see if you can answer the questions. Make multiple photocopies so you can practice more than once.
- Write down key terms in one column on a sheet of paper and test yourself by writing in the definitions or concepts in another column. This is a classic study method.
- Make and use flashcards, either paper or digital. Quizlet is an awesome flashcard app!
- Ask a friend to quiz you. (Note: group studying is awesome, after you’ve studied the material by yourself. Always study solo first.)
- Make your own quiz with either multiple choice or open-ended questions. You can make and exchange quizzes with a friend. Here’s a resource for making your own quizzes.
- Use the often-overlooked review section at the end of each chapter in your text book – you can usually find awesome quiz questions there.
- Teach someone else the material. It’s a classic rule that if you can’t teach it to a 6-year old, you don’t know it yourself.
5. BE KIND TO YOURSELF
We all get stressed out by different stimuli. You might get stressed out over tests but not papers, and other students might be okay with tests but get anxious about papers. We are all different and these differences are terrific.
My point here is to tell you there is nothing wrong with you because you suffer from test anxiety. It’s normal, or at least it may be your normal. So be kind to yourself when you feel the nerves coming on. And when you do feel them come on, do all you can to take control of the situation. YOU are in charge. Steps 1-4, and the next step too (step 6), are all about controlling the things you can control — like your preparation — to prevent test anxiety. But be gentle with you, trust that these steps will reduce your stress at least a little, and don’t judge yourself harshly if the process takes longer than you’d like.
Of course the idea is to prevent testing anxiety in school, but here are 8 tips for dealing with test anxiety during the test.
6. PLAN FOR THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO
Personally, I have to remind myself to do this one all the time, as I sometimes have a tendency to assume the most dramatic outcome is the likeliest outcome, which of course is never the case.
Here’s what you do: On a piece of paper, write down the absolute worst thing that could happen if you don’t do well on the test. You might think something like “Oh my gosh — I’ll fail the test and then I’ll fail the class and then I’ll never get into college and then I’ll never get a job and then I’ll live under a bridge with trolls forever!” But none of that is real. That’s not a possible outcome. You must write down the worst case scenario that could really happen.
- “The worst thing that could happen if I fail the test is that it would bring down my class grade,” or
- “The worst thing that could happen if I fail the test is that my parents will be mad,” or
- “The worst thing that could happen if I fail the test is that I’ll have to do extra credit to make up for the grade.”
After you imagine the worst thing that could happen, think logically about how you would handle it. Really. Do this. If the worst outcome you come up with is that “a failed test will bring down my class grade,” then think about how you would handle that. Would you do extra credit? Is there a re-test? Can you talk to your teacher? Write down your plan on a piece of paper. Sometimes just seeing it written down makes you realize a) just how unlikely the outcome is, or b) just how simple it would be to handle.
7. REDEFINE STRESS
Everyone knows that stress is detrimental, contributing depression, stokes, chronic pain, insomnia and even heart attacks. And countless studies prove the relationship between stress and these ailments. But sometimes just the thought of feeling anxious causes anxiety. So when a student experiences the stress response (which may include sweating, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, pupil dilation, etc.), just thinking about the balmy palms, rapid heartbeat, breathing irregularities and dilating pupils can increase the intensity of the stress response. This is a bad cycle.
But what if students experiencing test anxiety (either temporary or prolonged) changed their perspective on stress, and viewed it as typical, helpful and normal instead of scary, abnormal and harmful?
If you experience a rapid heart rate, you could recognize that your heart is pumping more intensely to circulate blood to help the body cope with the stress.
If you experience nervous sweats, you could “thank” your body for regulating your body temperature until the stressful situation passes.
If you experience rapid breathing, you could appreciate your body’s attempts to increase oxygen as a way to handle the elevated stress.
If you experience pupil dilation, you could acknowledge how hard your body is working to let in light so you can more clearly see the real or perceived danger.
The body’s stress response has an objective — to equip us adequately with the physical changes necessary to “fight or flight,” or in other words, to survive. The mind is a phenomenal organ, and it’s incredibly powerful. And if we change our minds about anxiety, we can perhaps change our levels of anxiety. Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University psychologist, has a similar view about embracing stress, if you want a more thorough explanation of this concept.
How to deal with severe test anxiety
Above are my seven best tips to overcome and prevent test anxiety of a general nature. However, I do want to acknowledge that some people experience acute test anxiety that is more severe than what I address here. Some people get so stressed at test-time that they hyperventilate, vomit, or even pass out. If you experience any of these extreme symptoms before a test, then I suggest you work with a behaviorist or other trained professional who can help you establish some coping mechanisms for these moments. There is help out there for you. You do not have to suffer. Speak up and seek help.
But of course, I do have some tips for dealing with severe test anxiety. Here they are:
- Breathe deeply through the nose for seven counts in and seven counts out. (Match the in-breath with the out-breath.)
- Ground yourself by looking around the room and acknowledging each of your five senses. (Notice something you see, feel, hear, smell, taste.)
- Answer all the easy questions first to build momentum and confidence (yes, that includes just writing your name on the paper).
- Repeat a positive mantra to yourself or even write it down on a piece of paper – something like “you know this!” or “this will be over soon!”
- And my favorite (but it takes practice to do) is to visualize all that tight stressful energy that balls up in your chest (your Chi) flowing downward to your feet. Release the tension in your chest and let it sink downward. Your feet might actually feel heavy when you get good at this one. This strategy has been around for thousands of years because it originates from ancient Chinese medicine. Try it!
- Worst-case scenario, you can ask the teacher to take the test later in the day, or ask to take it in a quiet room by yourself.
Remember, test anxiety is normal – as long as you keep it in check. So hopefully these tips can help you do just that.