For many people, the thought of writing a test is the stuff of nightmares.
For those no longer in school, being back there and having to write a test
is actually a common nightmare! But it doesn't have to be that way. There
are ways to help people overcome test anxiety.
"Life is full of evaluations; tests just happen to be part of that," says
David Ross, professor emeritus at a college in Illinois. "Some situations
we can avoid, [but] it's hard to avoid tests if you are in school. It is hard
to separate how you feel about yourself from your performance on tests."
The first step in understanding test anxiety is recognizing that, well,
it's difficult to understand. "Anxiety is complex," says Sandra Bolt, director
of student assessment services at a Seattle college.
Test anxiety, like all anxiety, is the body reacting to anticipating stress.
Bodies release adrenaline when they're stressed out; adrenaline gets the body
ready for danger. Adrenaline causes the physical signs of stress: your heart
beats faster than normal, you sweat, and you breathe fast.
It's important to realize that while it's very common to get a bit nervous
before a test, there are different levels of anxiety. Certain types of people
are more likely to get test anxiety - people who want everything they do to
be perfect, or people who tend to worry a lot to begin with, are more likely
to get test anxiety.
It's hard for people who want what they do to be perfect to accept not
acing a test, so the pressure is on to begin with for them. And, of course,
people who worry a lot in the first place are going to worry going into a
test situation as well.
Bolt says that there are people who can help counsel those with test anxiety.
Indeed, she says that if you're experiencing what seems like a lot more anxiety
than others regarding tests, it would be a good idea to talk to someone about
"A student with test anxiety may want to consult a professional in the
field," she says.
The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) says on their website
that it's rare to find a student who doesn't have a high level of anxiety
about big tests. They add that test anxiety can cause many other problems,
such as irritability, anger, headaches and depression.
The trouble is, as the ASCA points out, being stressed about anything can
reduce your ability to remember and recall information. So worrying too much
about doing well on the test could very well get in the way of your doing
well on the test!
One of the tips the ASCA gives on their website is what they call "practicing
the neutral tool". Doing this means that when you start to think negative
thoughts, you catch yourself and practice going neutral with your thought
process. This can stop those negative thoughts before they get worse.
Another one of the ASCA's tips is addressing negative "what-if" questions,
such as "What if I fail?" Instead, they recommend making up a what-if question
that is positive: "What if I feel more relaxed than I thought I would? What
if I remember much more than I expected?" They also suggest things like getting
enough sleep; eating well (a nice big, balanced breakfast before the exam
is important); and thinking good thoughts in general.
In U.S. high schools, competitive standardized college entrance exam testing
like SATs and ACTs place a great deal of pressure on students.
The ACT's website says that only 24 percent of high school graduates meet
all four of what they call the "ACT college readiness benchmarks." These four
benchmark areas are: English composition, social sciences, college algebra
With students trying their hardest to be part of that 24 percent, it's
easy to see why some people feel that standardized testing adds too much stress
to young peoples' lives. It is perhaps telling that schools in China, where
standardized testing originated, are now moving away from the system.
But, standardized or not, American or Chinese, it's noteworthy to mention
that not every student gets test anxiety in the first place. If you don't,
that's fine! Don't feel like you have to have it. Some people, like college
student Dylan Wilks, just don't get anxious about tests.
"That said, I think a lot of what gets to students is the massive grade
percentages that some finals count for," he says. "You could do extremely
well all semester long and suddenly drop from an A+ to a B or C because you
just weren't in the right head space or something on test day."
Thinking about that might give you a good level of anxiety! Keep in mind,
though, that a little bit of nervousness can help keep you alert and maybe
even a bit excited for the test. It's when that anxiety takes over that things
can become a problem.
"Absolutely," says Ross, "[anxiety] motivates us to study or work harder.
It perks us up during performance times. The key is to bring it back into
balance: not too much, not too little."
Once that balance is achieved, it's just a matter of dealing with a normal
amount of test nerves. Wilks has some easy, simple suggestions for students
to help with those test jitters.
In addition to studying the material well ahead of time, "A good night's
sleep the night before a test, and a quick note review before and after the
sleep, are the most I've ever done, and it's worked well," he says. He also
suggests staying away from some things people often go for immediately in
the stressful exam situation: coffee or energy drinks. Caffeine increases
heart rate, and can cause an increase in blood pressure, which is what stress
"I don't imagine excessive amounts of caffeine or any other stimulants
really help," he says. They can just make the stress response worse.