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Treating Test Anxiety

Most people feel some stress when it comes to taking a test. Moderate levels of stress can actually improve motivation, memory, and attention, and enhance test performance. Test anxiety, however, involves stress and worry that interferes with test performance, well-being, and attitudes toward school.

Symptoms of test anxiety may be physical and mental, and can include sweating, nausea, stomachache, shaking, muscle tension, nervousness, feeling overwhelmed, and the feeling of one’s mind going blank.

Most treatments for test anxiety are similar to treatments for other types of anxiety, with a couple unique differences. In addition to relaxation skills and cognitive restructuring techniques, treatment for test anxiety also includes practical study tips and test-taking skills.

Practical Skills

Treating test anxiety begins with teaching study tips and test-taking skills. Research shows that using these skills can help students stay relaxed, focused, and motivated to do well on a test (5).

Study Tips

Good study habits are important for students at all levels. Discuss these tips with your client and develop plans for integrating the tips into students’ current study habits.

  • Establish a study routine. Creating a routine–such as studying for an hour after dinner, or for a half hour each morning–will encourage consistency. When getting started, create a study schedule and set reminders on your phone to help build the habit.
  • Create a dedicated study area. Choose an area that is free of distractions where you can set up your study materials, and leave them between sessions. When it’s time to study, you won’t spend time searching for something you need. Just sit down, and you’re ready to go.
  • Focus on the quality of studying, not the quantity. It’s more effective to space out many short study sessions, rather than having one marathon session. Try studying in half-hour to hour-long blocks, with breaks in between. This way, you can stay alert and focused the whole time.
  • Make studying a priority. When it’s time to study, take it as seriously as you would take a job. Don’t skip study sessions, start on time, and give the task 100% of your attention.
  • Set specific study goals. Goals give direction to a study session and provide a sense of accomplishment when completed. Create goals that can realistically be completed in a single study session, such as: Learn the terms in chapter 1, pass the chapter 2 practice quiz, take notes on chapter 4, or review class notes for 30 minutes.
  • Don’t stop at reading–write down what you learn. By typing or hand-writing information, you will engage in active learning, which can improve retention and understanding. Try making flashcards, writing chapter summaries, or creating an outline of the material. As a bonus, you can refer back to what you’ve written to quickly review the material.
  • Quiz yourself to make information “stick”. Look for practice tests or discussion questions after each chapter you read. Another way to “quiz” yourself is to teach something you’ve studied to a friend, a pet, or even an inanimate object, without looking at the material.
  • A change of scenery can improve information retention. If you’re feeling unfocused, unmotivated, or just plain bored, try studying somewhere new. Libraries, parks and coffee shops are great alternatives for breaking out of your routine.
  • Take care of your mind and body. Healthy sleep habits, exercise, and a balanced diet will boost memory and brain function. Studying is most effective when it’s balanced with good habits.

Test Day

    Come Prepared
  • Get enough sleep. Forgoing sleep in order to study is actually associated with doing more poorly on the test (8).
  • Avoid caffeine. It might be tempting to consume a lot of caffeine in order to feel alert, but caffeine can exacerbate anxiety (4).
  • Arrive right on time. By doing this, you avoid anxiety-inducing situations, such as seeing others cramming for the test, discussing what will be on the test, and hearing others voice their own anxieties (5).
  • Get comfortable. Eat a good meal before the test, wear comfortable clothes, and choose your favorite seat in the classroom (5).
    Use Test-Taking Strategies
  • Do a “memory dump”. Jot down important terms, formulas, or other relevant information as soon as you receive the test. This creates an information bank you can refer to throughout the test (5).
  • Consider the point values. Skim the test to get an idea of the number of questions and their point values. Start with easier questions to build confidence, and spend more time on questions that are worth more points (3).
  • Take your best guess. Some students with test anxiety experience their mind going “blank” when they get a test, regardless of how much they studied. The good news is, they haven’t actually lost all the information they studied, so taking an educated guess will usually be better than leaving an answer blank (5).
  • Check your work. Before handing in the test, go back and check that all answers are correct and complete. Not only will this cut down on errors, it will also reassure you that every question was answered to the best of your ability (5).
Tip: Don’t feel rushed by other students’ finishing the test early--just because someone finishes quickly, doesn’t mean they got everything right!

Relaxation Skills

Students may experience test anxiety before, during, and after a test. Relaxation skills—such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation—can be used to manage this anxiety. For best results, students should practice these techniques regularly, rather than using them only on test day.

Deep breathing. Deep breathing reduces anxiety by slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and triggering a feeling of relaxation. Concentrating on breathing also distracts from negative thoughts related to testing. Deep breathing is discreet, effective, and easy to use. Here’s how to practice:

    How to Use Deep Breathing
  1. Sit back in a comfortable position, and close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so. TIP: When learning deep breathing, place one hand on your abdomen so you can feel it rise and fall with each breath.
  2. Breathe in slowly through your nose for 4 seconds.
  3. Hold the air in your lungs for 4 seconds (or less, if this becomes uncomfortable).
  4. Pucker your lips, and slowly exhale through your mouth. Time the exhalation to last 6 seconds. TIP: For practice, try exhaling through a straw. This will get you in the habit of exhaling slowly.
  5. Repeat the breathing cycle for at least two minutes.
Tip: Because deep breathing can be used discreetly, it is a great choice for anxiety reduction during a test.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). In this technique, students learn to slowly tense and relax their muscles, one-by-one. By doing this, they learn the difference between the feelings of tension and relaxation, and learn to consciously relax their muscles in order to feel calm. Students are encouraged to practice this technique daily. Here’s how to use it:

    How to Use Progressive Muscle Relaxation
  1. Sit back or lie down in a comfortable position. You may close your eyes.
  2. Beginning at your feet, notice how your muscles feel. Are they tense, or relaxed?
  3. Tightly tense the muscles in your feet by curling your toes. Hold the tension for 5-10 seconds.
  4. Release the tension from your feet, and allow them to relax. Notice how different the states of tension and relaxation feel.
  5. Move up your body, repeating the cycle of tensing and relaxing each group of muscles. Be sure to practice on the following groups of muscles: legs, pelvis, stomach, chest, back, arms, hands, neck, and face.

Cognitive Restructuring

Identify cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts that tend to be negative in nature. Irrational thoughts lack evidence, but can still lead to feelings such as depression, anger, and anxiety. Students with test anxiety may hold a number of cognitive distortions related to test-taking.

Below are some examples of test-related cognitive distortions:

  • “I’m going to fail!”
  • “If I don’t get an A, I’m worthless.”
  • “All my classmates are smarter than me. There’s no way I’ll do well on this test.”
  • “I never do well on tests, so I won’t do well on this one.”
  • “I passed the first test, but only because it was easy.”
  • “If I don’t do well on this test, I’ll never get a job.”
  • “The teacher doesn’t like me, so he’ll probably give me a bad grade.”

Challenge cognitive distortions. Once students identify cognitive distortions that are harmful, they can challenge them by examining the evidence. Socratic questioning, decatastrophizing, and putting thoughts on trial are techniques that can be used for this purpose. Once cognitive distortions are challenged, they can be replaced with rational, adaptive thoughts.

Use these resources to learn more about cognitive restructuring, or to practice:

Use positive self-talk. Self-talk refers to internal dialogue, or statements people say to themselves. Negative self-talk regarding test-taking ability leads to negative feelings about testing, which can lead to poorer test performance. Positive self-talk, on the other hand, leads to positive feelings about testing, and can improve test performance (1).

Below are some examples of positive self-talk:

  • “I’m well-prepared for this test.”
  • “I’m going to do my best.”
  • “I can get through this.”
  • “This is going to be okay.”
  • “Tests are never as bad as I think they’ll be.”
  • “Even though I’m anxious, I can still do well.”
  • “I’ll use relaxation skills to calm down.”
  • “I can see myself passing this test.”

So, how can students actually use positive self-talk? Start by creating a list of rational and believable positive statements (e.g. “I studied well”, rather than “I’m the smartest person in the world”). Statements should be rehearsed at least once a day, but more practice is better.

Here are some ways to use positive self-talk to reduce test anxiety:

  • Make a habit of using positive self-talk. Place the list of positive statements somewhere prominent—such as on a mirror, desk, or nightstand—and repeat the statements whenever you see the list.
  • Link statements to physical cues. Say a positive statement whenever you pick up your backpack, sit down at a desk, or put on headphones. With enough use, these actions come to trigger a positive thought.
  • Use positive self-talk during the test. Even if you have been practicing positive self-talk, the testing situation will still be stressful, and negative thoughts might return. Positive self-talk can counteract this negative thinking, and increase self-confidence (2).
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