Monday, November 30, 2015

9 Proven Tricks for Reducing Test Anxiety

Let's face it. We ALL experience test anxiety, right? Maybe not all the time; maybe not on every test. For a lot of us, it's always there—even when we are well prepared and it's just a little quiz that won't affect our course grade one way or the other.

As we all know, test anxiety really does affect our performance on a test. So it's important to develop skills to manage it and reduce it as much as possible. But how does one do that?

Below, I briefly outline some of the best ways I know of to reduce test anxiety. As you look through them, it's natural to think "this one probably won't work" or "that one is just plain silly" or "I'm not doing that!" But the the thing is, these have actually proven to be effective. Okay, maybe there are some that won't work for you—or won't have a big effect during every test—but you won't know that until you try them!
  1. Own up to your stress.

    The necessary first step in fixing anything is to recognize — and admit to — the problem. If you're reading this article, you've probably already done that. However, it is too easy to stop there. Many students blame their poor performance on test anxiety, but do not take any steps to reduce anxiety and improve performance. So the trick here is admitting to the test anxiety AND taking responsibility for personal improvement.

  2. Be prepared.

    This is probably the most effective trick in reducing test anxiety — but the least often practiced. There are several kinds of preparation for a test, all of which are critical to reducing anxiety and improving performance. The most obvious preparation is to study the concepts that will be tested. The other kind of preparation is a bit less obvious — you need to make sure that you have the skills needed to study effectively. Many college students have not learned effective study skills and thus their preparation for a test is inadequate. Putting some time and effort into learning how to study improves test preparation and reduces test anxiety.

  3. Don't cram.

    There are two kinds of cramming that can increase test anxiety.

    The first is putting off your study of the concepts to be tested until a day or two or three before a test. Even though you hear it all the time, NOBODY works better under pressure. So don't tell me that! You really need to study a little bit every day so that the day before the test, all you need is a light review. By trying to squeeze it all into a few days — or one very long night — you are increasing your stress levels tremendously. And that stress is going to carry over into the testing situation itself.

    The second kind of cramming is that fast and furious review of notes and flashcards while you are sitting in the hallway before you go into the test. Even if you have studied well and really know your stuff, this frantic one-more-time review can really ramp up your stress levels. One of the factors involved is when you do this with other students who are projecting their anxiety on to you. You may have arrived to the building with confidence, but that can all go out the window when surrounded by panicked classmates. So just stay away from them! What to do instead? Check out item 6 below.

  4. Don't forget to breathe.

    Okay, I know that you're not going to forget to breathe. What I mean by this is you you should try focusing on your breathing as if you might forget to breathe. A lot of research shows that you can reduce anxiety by putting everything out of your mind except a focus on your breathing. This is especially effective if you gradually slow your breathing to a very slow rate — maybe half your normal resting breathing rate — with long inspirations and even longer expirations. This works even better if you practice it every day — not just when you're getting ready to take a test. Check out 7 below.

    By the way, this breathing trick can also be very effective when you find your anxiety level increasing while you are taking a test. By taking just a moment to focus on your breathing and slow it down, you can reduce your anxiety. If you instead focus on your anxiety instead of your breathing, things will just get worse.

  5. Write your stress.

    It seems weird at first, but studies show that if you write out your stressful feelings right before you take a test, your test anxiety will be reduced — or even go away. Even if what you are writing is that you are way, way stressed out and that you hate the test and hate the material and hate the course and hate the professor and hate that you did not study, your anxiety will dissipate. At least a little bit, but often quite a lot. Try it — you may be surprised at how effective this is!

  6. Search out serenity.

    In trick 3 above, I mentioned that you shouldn't spend the minutes before a test cramming and feverishly reviewing your notes because that will ramp up your anxiety. So what should you do? One option is to induce relaxation with a breathing exercise, as described in 4 above. Another option is to write your stress, as described in 5 above.

    But there are other stress-relieving options. For example, leisurely stroll inside or outside the building before the test — trying to focus on what you see, rather than on the test or the course content. Is there an aquarium you can visit? Are there windows looking out onto a peaceful scene — or even just a parking lot where you can focus on the people and cars moving about? It's probably not a good idea to seek out digital serenity, however. Videos and social media and digital games are more likely to ramp up your anxiety than to get rid of it.

  7. Practice daily stress-reduction.

    In trick 4, I mentioned that slow breathing to relax is more effective if it is something that you have practiced regularly. There many other stress-reducing practices that you can do every day so that you are always starting from a less-anxious state. With many of these techniques, mastering them also allows you to take some control of your anxiety when it pops up in a stressful moment.

    What does it for me is tai chi. Others find that meditation, nature walks, yoga, fishing, and other relaxation strategies can have this effect. Besides helping you with your test anxiety, such a practice is a good life skill to develop ways of promoting relaxation and reducing stress.

  8. Takes lessons in managing stress.

    The one "trick" that does not work to reduce test anxiety is "just chill out." Managing stress is a skill — and like any skill, you need to learn it somewhere. Many colleges offer workshops and mini-courses in managing stress and reducing test anxiety. There may be other opportunities for such lessons in your community. Look around!

  9. Get professional advice.
    If your test anxiety is severe, this might be where you should start. Many colleges provide professional academic counseling that can help you learn to manage your test anxiety — or at least refer you to a professional who can provide you with specific help. Another option is to ask your physician for help or a referral. There are some professional counselors who specialize in test anxiety.

    Professional help can often have a dramatic effect in your life by helping you find the tools you need to reduce test anxiety and improve your academic performance.

Want to know more?

Scan test: David Hartman
Hand writing photo: Lavinia Marin
Tai Chi photo: Rayko Swensson

Friday, November 20, 2015

How the Ears Hear

When studying the rather complex structure and function of the ear and hearing, a picture is probably worth more than the usual exchange rate of a thousand words. But with this particular concept, I think a well designed, narrated animation can be worth a million words. Or perhaps it's just beyond words—making it priceless for learning. 

 Below is a great video that clearly explains the whole story of  auditory transduction—converting sound waves into hearing sensations in the ear.

 Before watching it, I recommend first reading the section of your textbook that covers ear anatomy and hearing, paying particular attention to the diagrams needed to understand the concept. That way, you'll get a lot more out of it!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Time Management is a Key to Success

The A&P course is one of the most rigorous courses you'll ever take—at least in terms of how much new information you'll be learning in a limited period of time.  It really cannot be done successfully unless you actively manage your time.

Simply going with the flow will NOT work for the A&P course!

It's easy to say to yourself, "I need to manage my time better!" but it's quite another to actually do it. Most of us just don't know the best practical techniques to make that happen.

Fortunately, the folks at the Dartmouth Academic Skill Center have put together a brief video that walks you through proven methods for time management in college. Strategies that I've used myself to manage my time to be more productive—and to avoid missing deadlines or falling behind.

And you'll learn that managing your time intentionally actually frees up more time for yourself!

Cartoon credit: dabnotu

Monday, March 2, 2015

Sleep Helps You Succeed

The results of a study by the National Sleep Foundation are just in—and they show that you need more sleep if you want to succeed in your A&P course.

A panel of experts analyzed all of the studies they could find that focus on recommended sleep durations and concluded that adults aged 18-64 should get 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night for good health.

Good health, for the purposes of the study includes performance, cognitive health, and executive function—all critical to success in your A&P course.

Yeah, I know, it's HARD to get a full night's sleep when you have to work, have family responsibilities, have too much on your plate, want to hang with your friends, have a roommate with insomnia, are too stressed, etc., etc.

However, there ARE ways to get around these issues and improve your sleep times.  Your physician or counselor can help you find sleep strategies that work for you.  This video from Dartmouth's Academic Skills Center may also be helpful to you.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Easter Eggs, Cheats, and the ESRB

I'm not up on the latest video game lingo.  I never got past Pong, which became popular when there weren't enough video games around to generate a whole new language.  But by listening carefully and asking a few questions, I've figured out these terms:

  • Easter egg - An extra little undocumentsed feature hidden away unobstrusively in a game
  • Cheat - This is a trick used to gain extra points or unlock extra powers or otherwise gain an advantage beyond just playing a game "straight"
  • ESRB - This is an organization that rates games for content (age-appropriateness, violence, etc.)

Two of my children are really into video games and when they talk to each other, I don't understand half of what they are saying because they're using all of this video-game lingo that I never picked up.

What does this have to do with your A&P course?  Terminology.  The language of A&P.

You are feeling overwhelmed with all the new terminology you have to learn, right?  And yet you've already mastered the specialized terminology of sports or video games or hobbies or SOMETHING in your life without too much pain—and without your head exploding.

So do the same things you always do to pick up the terminology of A&P:

  • Actively listen for new terms
  • Look at (and learn) new terms before you need them
  • If you run across a term that's unfamiliar, look it up—or Google it
  • Ask for help (your teacher, your classmates, your librarian)
  • Realize that it's going to take a few tries to pick up each new term
  • Don't ignore new terms—you might need it again, and soon

For specific tips on learning the terminology of A&P, check out

If you want some more specifics on the terminology of human science and medicine, check out my other blog o-log-y.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why You Should Write Out Your Notes

You have that great, expensive laptop to use for school.  You see other students taking notes in class, making concept lists, taking reading notes, and other learning tasks on their laptops—so why not do the same?

Here's the reason it's a good idea to skip the laptop and write out your notes:

You learn better when you write it out.  

Our brains just work that way.  If we slow down to write things out, it's easier for all that information to be fully processed by our brains—and makes it more likely that we'll remember it.

Besides that, by using the part of our brains that functions in the act of writing words and drawing sketches, we not only process the information in another way—we have another place in our brain to reinforce and remember the information for the long term.

Sure, if things are going too fast for you to keep up, it's a struggle.  But your brain works to sort out the essential information and how to condense it.  That helps you learn it even better!  If you do write out your notes, you'll struggle less in the long run.

This a great strategy for learning the overwhelming amount of new information you encounter in your A&P course, eh?

Want to know more?

Strategy: Here's Why Writing Things Out By Hand Makes You Smarter

  • D. Baer  Business Insider  DEC. 16, 2014, 10:56 AM
  • A brief article summarizing why this technique works.

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking

  • P. Mueller & D. Oppenheimer Psychological Science January 16, 2014
  • Abstract of a recent research report summarizing experimental results.

Here are some related posts from The A&P Student

Image: Wellcome Trust - William Harvey's lecture notes

Monday, February 9, 2015

How Much of This Is Going to Be on The Test?

You are not the first A&P student to run into this issue!

That’s always a problem—especially near the beginning of A&P 1—figuring out what’s important to study for the test and what’s not.  Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.

First, every teacher is different.  So I could give you some precise guidance if I was teaching your class, but not so much for another teacher’s class. So really, your only option for really focused help in figuring out what'll be on your test is to go have a chat with your professor.

I'll never forget the first time I went to chat with a professor about this back in the olden days when I was a student.  It was after our first test, when it became clear to me that I'd missed the mark in my studying. Our professor was very serious in class—not the sort I would think wanting students bothering him outside of class. But after class, my buddy said "let's go" and led me down the hall.  I thought we were meeting up with another friend or something. But my buddy just walked right into our professor's open office door and asked, "can you help us figure out how to study for your tests?" I don't think I'd ever have visited a professor's office on my own.

You know what happened?  He gave us a huge smile, offered us each a chair, and chatted with us for almost an hour.  And wow, did we learn a lot about what to expect on his tests—as well as some general study tips that I still use to this day.  I think most students hesitate to take this step.

Your professor is the one making up the test, after all.  So bring your notes and your other course materials with you and ask for some pointers.

Before doing that, I would look carefully at the course syllabus.  Often, there are hints (or outright guidance) on what’s important.  One hint would be any course objectives or learning outcomes.  If the instructor put them there, then this is what they want you to know.  The problem is that often they are very general, but at least it gives you a start.  If the syllabus tells you to do specific things to prepare, like answer questions in the book at the end of the chapter, then the teacher expects you to know that particular information.

Then, think about what the professor presents in class, online, and in discussions. Most instructors often say something like, “when you get this on the test, be sure you know it” or some other hint like that.  I tell my students to put a star in their notes EVERY TIME I say something like that.  Because we teachers don’t say that unless we KNOW it’s going to be an item on the test.

If it's too late for that in studying for your upcoming test, you can still go back over your notes and perhaps jog your memory about whether they said anything like that.

I always tell students to ask if there are copies of old tests you can look at.  Sometimes instructors will let you see them, sometimes they won’t.  But you won’t have a chance if you don’t ask.  Looking at old tests helps you figure out an instructor’s approach to testing—a huge step toward preparing for their tests.  The good news is that the more of that professor's tests that you take, the better you will get at taking them.  The bad news is that you may not have really had that chance yet.

Another tip is to form a study group.  Talking things out among several students often helps each of you focus your learning.  Be sure to meet with your study group just AFTER the test, too.  Then, y’all can talk out what happened on the test and look for things that will help you in future tests.  For example, “wow, she tested only on what was on the slides” or “wow, she tested on some things that were not on the slides” or whatever.  That’ll help you prepare for the next test.  Study groups have been shown to be the BEST way to prepare for a test.

Lastly, I’ll tell you that my experience talking to students in A&P classes that come to me wanting to know how to focus their study for a test is that I often give them some specific advice that I didn’t have time to talk about in class.  Sometimes even saying things like, “no, that topic won’t even be on the test” or “there will definitely be a matching section on that concept” or “I’ll ask you to identify the functions of ALL the organelles.”   Make sure you write all that down while you chat.  Or at least do that out in the hall just after leaving your professor's office, so you don’t forget.

So, in a nutshell, talking to your teacher about your next test is the best strategy.

Click here for more tips on taking A&P tests.

Top photo: Creative Ignition
Bottom photo: Tbuckley89

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Cells of the Immune System

Cells of the Immune System interactive

Confused by T cells and B cells?

Need help from "helper" cells?

Having bad dreams about natural killer cells?

Do you have an innate fear of immunology?

Then use this FREE interactive overview to help you sort out the "big ideas" of human immunity.

Get your B's and T's straightened out!

Learn how to properly serve up an antigen for supper!

Click here to start! And don't forget to click on the embedded videos—they are very helpful!

To get the maximum benefit from this "click and learn" activity, then fill out this worksheet to solidify your learning.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Heart Song

I've always thought that silly songs are great mnemonic devices in the human sciences.  I've seen them work from kindergarten (remember the ABC song?) and up through medical school (even in pharmacology).

If you find them "catchy" then you'll find yourself repeating them in your head.  Or maybe even out loud.  And that's the kind of thing that helps your brain form long-term memories!

One I recently ran across is in a music video original produced to help 6th-graders learn about the heart.  But it may help you as you begin your study of the heart in A&P!

Watch it here.

Another one is a classic favorite: Pump Your Blood

Want more silly songs?  Check these out!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Blood Types

Learning about blood types can be a bit confusing at first.

But the concept of blood types is important for several reasons:

  • Blood typing is used frequently in clinical medicine because the use of blood transfusions is common, and therefore so is blood banking and related activities.

  • Knowing one's own blood type is important for future medical procedures—perhaps even a life-threatening emergency.

  • Concepts of blood typing carry over into other types of tissue typing—a concept useful in transplant medicine.

  • Blood typing is a great introduction to basic concepts of immunology (something you'll be coming to soon in your A&P course) like antigens, antibodies, agglutination reactions, self vs. nonself, and more.

  • It's just one of those things you have to learn in A&P.  Trust us, we know this will be useful to you later on—even if you don't think so now.

Here's a great video that lays out the essential concepts very briefly—in an easy-to-understand way. Sometimes, an explanation that's a bit different than that in your textbook or class discussion helps a new concept "click" in your brain.

Watch the brief video What are Blood Types:

One brief note: the video states that antigens are proteins.  That's often true.  But in blood typing, the A and B antigens are actually sugars.  The Rh antigens are proteins.  Not a big deal—they were trying to keep it simple for you.

Here's a copy of the chart of ABO blood types used in the video.  You may want to copy-and-paste it into your class notes to supplement your learning resources.

Click on the image for other sizes.

Here's a chart showing donor-recipient compatibility for the ABO-Rh combined typing system.

Click on the image for other sizes.