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Overcoming Test Anxiety: Steps & Strategies

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Test anxiety can be debilitating and cause you to perform poorly on tests. Thankfully, there are strategies that can help. Read on to learn about these strategies. Then, take a no stress quiz to see what you learned.

What is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety is a problem, and it's getting worse. We live in a culture that is promoting more tests all the time. There's a push for data on everything, and that means more testing. But that change comes with consequences. Test anxiety is a feeling of worry or nervousness about an upcoming test, and it can be debilitating. It not only makes it hard to think about anything else before a test, but it causes people to perform worse than they normally would, and reduces the efficiency of their studying shortly before the test.

Test taking can be stressful
Test taking can be stressful

How do you know if you have test anxiety? Well, symptoms include:

  • Having repeated negative thoughts about failing or not performing well.
  • Having trouble focusing on anything else.
  • Being easily distracted by things.
  • Being unable to think during tests.
  • Doing worse on tests than you would expect given your knowledge level.
  • Physical reactions include fidgeting, butterflies, elevated pulse, rapid breathing, sweating and nausea.

Thankfully, there are ways to overcome test anxiety. It can be difficult, but it will not only improve your quality of life, but also your test performance at the same time.

Steps for Overcoming Test Anxiety

The steps for overcoming test anxiety can be put into two categories: mindset, and preparation. Test anxiety is largely inside your mind, so it makes sense that the main answer would be psychological. But it's also true that greater test preparation can reduce test anxiety in some people.

Relaxed Mindset

To retrain your mind against test anxiety, there are many things you can do:

  • Challenge your own negative thoughts as soon as you have them. After thinking, 'I'm about to fail this test,' remind yourself that you have no way of knowing that. Tests go better than expected every single day. Just because you didn't do so well last time, doesn't mean you won't this time.
  • Re-frame the consequences. The consequences of underperforming on a test are never as bad as we imagine in our minds. You should always try hard, but to reduce anxiety, you can remind yourself that a single result really doesn't matter all that much.
  • Re-frame the purpose of a test. Think of the test not as a way to punish a failure to learn, but as a way to reward what you have learned. Remember: depending on the test, it's likely that you would have gotten close to a zero before the first class. So any test result shows that you've learned things - and that's really the goal.
  • Remind yourself of backup plans: If you don't do so well, you'll do x, y, and z to prepare for the next test. If you don't do so well on this course, will that in any way affect the courses you take next year? If so, it just means a change of direction. If not, then it definitely isn't worth worrying about. Even a test that means you don't get into your ideal university isn't the end of the world - there are always other schools that you will get into. It isn't as important as people claim.
  • Remind yourself of what you will always have. If you have your health, that isn't going to change. (In fact, stress will only make it worse.) You'll always have the people who care about you. They're not going to abandon you because of a test. Having a support system that can remind you of these things really helps.
  • Get plenty of sleep. It's harder for a tired mind to banish negative thoughts, and harder to do well on the test when you are exhausted. Your brain also organizes the new things you've learned while you sleep, so any extra study time you get by not sleeping is usually undone by not sleeping.
  • Remember that there's only so much you can do. Once you're at the test, studying is over and is now outside of your control. And there's no benefit to worrying about something you can't control.
  • Avoid talking to other students, unless you're sure they will calm you down. Other people's anxiety can be contagious.
  • Practice breathing exercises. Breathe in deeply, so that your belly moves up and down (not just your upper chest) and count to 5. Other relaxation exercises can be found online.

Getting plenty of sleep is good for learning
Getting plenty of sleep is good for learning

Preparation

Preparation also helps with test anxiety. The more prepared you feel, the less likely you are to be anxious. Even in the most confident people, things like being late for a test can spark a wave of anxiety. It's best to avoid anything that will cause you further problems. Here are some suggestions:

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