It is normal to feel some level of anxiety while taking an exam. However, when anxiety begins to affect exam performance, it has become a problem. Some anxiety can be helpful in terms of focus and motivation in performance situations. Additionally, it is quite possible to learn to manage anxiety that is disruptive to performance.
Cognitive symptoms of test anxiety include problems with attention, concentration, and memory. Examples include blanking out on information that has been studied while taking the test, or negative thoughts about failure during the test. Some students remember the correct answer as soon as the test is over. Other examples include difficulty with:
Emotional symptoms of test anxiety include feelings of anxiousness, irritability, frustration, and fear.
Social symptoms of test anxiety include avoiding others, procrastination by spending social time with others, excess irritability, and extensively comparing your level of anxiety to that of others just prior to taking the test.
Physiological symptoms of test anxiety include headaches, perspiration, muscle tension, stomach distress, difficulty with sleep, and appetite changes.
Self-talk is the conversation we have most of the time that exists just on the edge of our awareness, and which shapes our view of ourselves and the world in powerful ways. With practice, we can learn to become aware of this internal monologue. Self-talk is learned, and habitual, and may not be accurate or rational, although it always sounds like the truth. (“I am so ugly,” “No one likes me,” “I can’t do it.”) Unfortunately, irrational self-talk can escalate anxiety into panic.
Our body responds to thoughts that indicate danger with the physical symptoms that evolved to help us deal with danger (fight or flight response). If our irrational thoughts tell us that our college career, and even our very lives, will be down the tubes if we fail a test, and that we are dumb and likely to fail, we will experience physical symptoms of anxiety. However, if we can learn to identify our self-talk, decide what makes sense and rewrite the parts of the conversation that are irrational, we will have significantly less anxiety.
Take time while studying for a test to listen to the self-talk you are experiencing. Write it down, and decide if it is positive or negative. If it is negative, practice writing a more positive thought to challenge or replace the negative thought. Take some time to rehearse becoming aware of your self-talk and replacing negative thoughts with more positive thoughts before the test. Then, when you are feeling uncomfortable in a testing situation this will be a skill you can call on to manage your anxiety.
For instance: “My mind is blank, I’ll never get the answer” can be replaced with:
“I can take some deep slow breaths to calm down and work on the questions I am able to answer, then come back to this one.”
It is possible to learn to respond to test anxiety and other stressful situations in a different way by first imagining a person performing the behavior as you would like to do it yourself. A counselor can help you practice this skill, which involves:
Test anxiety can impede your ability to demonstrate what you have actually learned in a class. Be sure to let your instructor know (in advance) if you believe your performance is negatively impacted by anxiety, and talk over any suggestions the instructor offers. Significant anxiety may warrant accommodations (such as extended time, an alternate setting for test taking) which can be discussed through Disabilities Services in the Student Academic Support Center.
Luther College is an environment rich with resources. For support to manage anxiety around tests or performance of any kind, contact the Counseling Service at (563) 387-1375. For assistance with study skills, test preparation, and time management, contact the Counseling Service or the Student Academic Support Center at (563) 387-1270.
The American Test Anxiety Association is another helpful resource.