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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 the opposite all the time, NOBODY really works best under pressure—at least not the kind of pressure created by putting off your studying. 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Practice daily stress-reduction.
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.
- Take lessons in managing stress.
The one "trick" that does not work to reduce test anxiety is to "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!
- 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?
- What is Anxiety?
- Survival Guide for Anatomy & Physiology
- Trick to Reduce Test Anxiety
- Don't Forget to Breathe!
- Ten Exam Strategies for A&P
- Practice. Practice. Practice.
Tai Chi photo: Rayko Swensson