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Test Anxiety

What is test anxiety?

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.

What are some symptoms of test anxiety?

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:

  • reading and understanding the questions
  • organizing thoughts
  • retrieving key words and concepts

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.

Reducing Test Anxiety

Learn to be an effective learner

  • Careful preparation can minimize anxiety. Procrastination often leads to increased anxiety. Take some time to learn effective study skills early in your college career, but give yourself permission to ask for help with study skills at any point. The Student Academic Support Center (located in the lower level of Preus Library) is a good resource.
  • Avoid cramming, which is an ineffective way to study. Getting a good night’s sleep and adequate nutrition are often a better use of your time.
  • Utilize self-testing to review for a test. Generate questions from your texts and notes.
  • Learn to be an active learner, learn for comprehension rather than to take a test. 
  • Focus on key words, concepts, and examples; make charts and outlines to organize the information in your notes and texts.
  • Study effectively, with regular breaks and repetition. Find a place for study where distractions will be minimized.
  • Caffeine, lack of sleep, and junk food do not contribute to learning or to anxiety management.

The day of the test

  • Think realistically about the test and your preparation. It is not a reflection of who you are, and generally will not make or break you.  If you did not prepare well, decide to do the best you can. If you prepared carefully, affirm yourself for your work.
  • Eat in a healthy way.
  • Relax in the time right before the test. This is generally more helpful than cramming. Take some time to be sure you have everything you need for the test.
  • Arrive at the classroom soon enough to choose a seat, but save your spot and leave to relax, stretch, and calm yourself, entering again no more than 5 minutes before the test. 
  • Avoid classmates who frighten, stress, or scare you before the test.
  • Bring a distraction with you, such as a magazine or a newspaper.
  • Focus on what you must do rather than on your fear.
  • See your anxiety as a reminder not to panic, but to focus on the task at hand.
  • Use intentional relaxation techniques to minimize tension and anxiety.

During the test

  • Listen carefully to instructions. 
  • Review the overall test to orient yourself, and plan how to manage your time.
  • Read all the instructions carefully, watching for small but important words such as “or”, “”and”, “choose two”, etc.
  • Observe the point value of the questions to help organize your time.
  • Complete the questions in an order that feels most comfortable to you.
  • Remind yourself to relax. If you are stuck, move to another question.
  • If the test is hard for you, it is likely hard for others. Remind yourself of this.
  • Focus on the test rather than on your fear. 
  • Check for incomplete work or careless errors before turning the test in.

Additional tips

  • Ask the professor for clarification if necessary.
  • Don’t focus on others during the exam. Focus on the exam.
  • Keep breathing, as deeply and calmly as possible.
  • Take a moment to tense and relax your muscles, then go back to the test.
  • Break your pencil lead, and go sharpen it, or go get a drink or to the restroom if you need to move around.
  • Close your eyes and talk to yourself as you would to your best friend in this situation.

If you feel overwhelmed

  • Pause, take some cleansing breaths, tighten and release some muscles and take a moment to relax your body.
  • Expect your fear to rise some as you address the test; remind yourself this is normal.
  • Work to talk yourself out of the incapacitating parts of your fear. Remind yourself it is simply anxiety, others are experiencing it, it is not the end of the world and you can get through the exam.
  • Repeat your coping strategies until you can go back to the exam.

After the test

  • Analyze what went well and what you could have done better.
  • Keep track of the coping strategies that worked well, and continue to practice them.
  • Make a plan for preparing for your next test by including what you learned about test taking from this experience.

Altering Self-Talk for Test Anxiety

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.

Negative self-talk for creating test anxiety:

  • I will never be able to do this; I always screw up.
  • My mind is blank; I will never get the answer.
  • There isn’t enough time to finish everything; I’ll never get through this test.
  • I feel so sick that everyone must be able to see how stupid I am.
  • I am going to fail this class and get kicked out of school because of this test.
  • I can’t stand feeling this overwhelmed. I can’t take this test.
  • This is hopeless; the professor must think I’m an idiot.
  • This always happens, I can never do it; I am going to be kicked out of school.
  • I know I will blank out and forget everything. My life is over.

Positive self-talk for managing test anxiety:

  • I might feel nervous, but I can handle it.
  • I can stay calm, and have prepared well.
  • This is only anxiety—I’ve been through this before.
  • Just breathe and relax.
  • I can get through this. 
  • I have plenty of time; I don’t need to rush.
  • Feeling anxious won’t harm me. The feeling will get less intense if I wait it out.
  • I can feel afraid and still get through this.
  • I can focus my attention on what I really have to do.
  • I can take some deep slow breaths, and feel more calm.
  • My muscles feel tight. I can take a minute to stretch before I begin.
  • This is not the most important thing in my life. I can survive this experience.

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.”

Behavior Visualization

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: 

  • Identifying the parts of a situation you want to change;
  • Deciding the ways you would prefer to behave (to reduce your anxiety); and
  • Learning this preferred way of behaving by visualizing others and yourself doing this behavior over and over.

Additional Resources

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 x1375. For assistance with study skills, test preparation, and time management, contact the Counseling Service or the Student Academic Support Center at x1270.

The American Test Anxiety Association is another helpful resource.