What is Test Anxiety?

The term "test anxiety" refers to the emotional reactions that some students have to exams. The fear of exams is not irrational—after all, how you perform on college exams can shape an academic career; however, an excessive fear of exams can interfere with your ability to be successful.

What are the Components of Test Anxiety?

  • A physical component of test anxiety involves the typical bodily reactions of acute anxiety: a knot or butterflies in the stomach, sweating, trembling hands, tense shoulders/neck, dry mouth, pounding heart or rapid breathing.
  • The emotional component of test anxiety involves fear or panic.
  • The mental component of test anxiety involves problems with attention and memory—“my mind jumps from one thing to another" or "I go blank."

Techniques for Calming Test Anxiety

Technique 1: Loosen Up and Relax

One approach to controlling test anxiety is to learn how to relax on cue. It's fairly simple, but if you want to be able to do it on your next exam, you'll have to practice it beforehand. Follow these steps:

  • Get comfortable in your chair. Close your eyes or focus on a point in the distance.
  • Begin breathing slowly and deeply.
  • Focus your attention on your breath going in and out.
  • Each time you breathe out, say "relax" to yourself.
  • You may amplify the relaxation effect by tightening and then relaxing different muscle groups of your body, one group at a time. Start with your feet and then move up your body to the top of your head. Don't forget to include your face.

Technique 2: Control Your Worries

A second approach to calming test anxiety focuses on reducing the negative thoughts that provoke anxiety. Test-anxious students tend to say things to themselves that are negative or exaggerated. Research shows that test anxiety can be reduced if these negative thoughts can be replaced by constructive thoughts.

Try: "Yes this is a difficult test. I'm going to do the best I can. If I get a low grade, I'll do what it takes to perform better next time.” vs. "If I do badly on the test, I'm a failure."

Anxiety or Study Habits?

Students may blame test anxiety for poor performance on exams, but a lack of preparedness for a test can cause anxiety. Be sure to be well prepared.

Before the Test

  1. Discuss test content with the instructor and classmates.
  2. Develop effective study and test preparation skills.
  3. Spread review of class material over several days rather than cramming.
  4. Review text, notes and homework problems.
  5. Take a practice test under exam-like conditions.
  6. Continue regular exercise program.
  7. Get sufficient rest and nutrition.

During the Test

  1. Read the directions carefully.
  2. Budget your test taking time.
  3. If you go blank, skip the question and go on.
  4. If you're taking an essay test and you go blank, pick a question and start writing. It may trigger the answer in your mind.
  5. Don't panic when students start handing in their papers. There's no reward for being the first done.