Test anxiety is a feeling of tension that is strong enough to hinder a student’s ability to do their best on an exam, specifically to achieve a score that accurately reflects their understanding of the material they are being tested on. In other words, test anxiety causes students to underperform, not showing what they know on exams.
Testing anxiety is a subjective emotional state related to the threat of doing poorly and resulting negative consequences. Test taking anxiety that is significant enough to have a negative impact on test scores is common in 20% to 25% of college students, according to academic studies involving undergraduate college students.
While common, test taking anxiety can be counteracted with effective techniques. These 5 test anxiety strategies have been shown to overcome test anxiety when employed by college students in the following diagram.
Being prepared for a test is a proven strategy for overcoming test taking anxiety. Knowing the material well enough to have strong confidence in your mastery of it boosts confidence and relieves or reduces anxiety that can hinder academic performance on an exam.
The positive effect of study preparation on test anxiety and performance is shown in a study that concluded that improving students’ test preparation, “reduced the level of test anxiety and improved the performance of students.” The authors of the study offered their conclusion that, “Faculty members and heads of the departments should help students learn about the study preparation over the semester with engagement in learning-oriented approaches and class activities.”
The best study preparation strategies begin with proven study habits. One of the most widely attested study habits is learning the Study Cycle of Preview, Lecture, Review, Study and Check/Assess performance. The PLRS Study Cycle formulated by Frank Christ is taught at hundreds of universities across the country including Northern Illinois University, the University of North Carolina and the University of Idaho.
Additional strategies for study preparation to overcome test anxiety include:
Using active learning, rather than passive learning such as reading only, in which students engage in activities solo, with other students or with instructors to promote critical thinking, analysis, problem solving and application.
- Setting goals and managing time
- Consistently using review sessions
- Taking timed practice exams
- Understanding what the test format will be
- Spacing out study times
- Teaching other students the material
- Taking breaks
- Avoiding cramming
2. Positive Thinking
Positive thinking is a choice to think and feel that things will go well for you. For students, positive thinking is visualizing that they will do well on tests. It is more than “happy thoughts,” though those can be part of it. Positive thinking to reduce test anxiety involves a comprehensive, proactive attitude that believes the best of yourself and your ability to prepare well and get excellent scores on exams. Positive self-talk is part of this test anxiety strategy. Students that give themselves a “pep talk” develop a more positive attitude about their ability to perform well on tests, and that attitude alleviates stress and anxiety.
A cognitive approach is one of three primary means researchers have studied to treat test anxiety, according to an academic paper by the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow. “According to the cognitive approach, the main source of test anxiety is the thinking disturbances that occur in test situations. This includes pressure of scoring high on tests, fear of passing a course, consequences of failing in test and incompatibility of preparation for test and demand of test.” Cognitive restructuring, which is choosing to think positively about your ability to perform well on the test while blocking out negativity, is one common and effective technique for overcoming test anxiety.
Elements of positive thinking for college students include these practices:
- Foster an attitude of optimism
- Listen to positive people and tune out negativity
- Engage in constructive thinking that focuses on positive solutions and results
- Reject negative thinking
- Use self-talk that is affirming and uplifting
- Remind oneself of the rewards of good study preparation – better academic performance
- Be realistic but positive about areas of study preparation that need improvement
A study from Stanford University on having a positive attitude toward math shows that such an attitude leads to higher math achievement. The study’s lead author said of the results, “Based on our data, the unique contribution of a positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ.”
Concentration is the process of focusing your thoughts, emotions and actions on the present moment rather than worrying about what happened earlier or might occur later. It is a skill for overcoming test taking anxiety that is similar to mindfulness. It considers the present moment all there is, in a sense.
Concentration during a test while blocking out anxious feelings allows you to use your mental energy to give full attention to the test rather than dwelling on worried thoughts and emotions. This test taking anxiety strategy is also called focused attention and attention control.
Tips for using concentration to overcome test taking anxiety are:
- Use relaxation techniques such as taking deep breaths and exhaling slowly and using progressive muscle relaxation
- Manage your time to allot enough time for each section and question of the exam and avoid anxiety-producing feelings of being rushed
- Read the entire exam over quickly before starting and carefully reading each question before answering
- Focus on one section or question at a time to avoid being overwhelmed and anxious about the entire scope of the test
- Take a short mental break of a minute or two during the exam to relax and refocus
- Give yourself a positive thinking talk if you feel anxious during the test
Anxiety contributes to lower test scores. But using relaxation techniques reduces anxiety and its negative consequences.
A study on the impact of mathematics anxiety on academic performance concluded that, “Higher levels of mathematics anxiety predicted more negative stress responses and lower exam scores.” Anxious students do worse on math tests than students that use test taking anxiety strategies.
According to the study titled Effects of Relaxation Techniques on Nursing Students’ Academic Stress and Test Anxiety which discusses the effects of relaxation techniques on nursing students’ academic stress and test anxiety, “A thematic analysis of the focus group interview indicated relaxation techniques prior to examinations helped to reduce mental and physical stress and fear of failure.”
The best relaxation techniques for test anxiety include:
- Exercise or use yoga or stretching prior to the exam
- Think positively
- Ignore negative thoughts or counteracting them with positive self-talk
- Visualize doing well on the exam and rewarding yourself as a result
- Use mindfulness to stay focused on the exam rather than fretting about possible poor test results
- Breathe deeply as needed to calm your nervous system
- Practice progressive muscle relaxation that involves tensing and relaxing muscle groups starting in your legs and moving up to your shoulders, neck and head
Resignation in test taking is a strategy to employ once you have no more time to prepare. This test taking anxiety strategy is accepting your current level of preparation and readiness without giving up or failing to do your best once the test has begun. It is the choice to acknowledge that there is no more time to prepare, and the best approach once the test starts is to put aside concerns about the results and focus on the test in front of you.
In Anxiety, Stress & Coping research, the author states that, “High-anxious students should be encouraged to use cognitive, affective, and behavioral strategies as well as resignation in order to alleviate their stress and anxiety in test situations.” This test taking tip shifts the focus away from the fear of failure to doing the best one can in the moment. Resignation puts the test into perspective, that it isn’t the sole determinant of the student’s worth or their potential for academic achievement and a successful career in the future.
Resignation as a test taking anxiety strategy is best coupled with good study habits and preparation, positive thinking, concentration and relaxation.
Does Grasping Test-taking Strategies Help for Test Anxiety?
Yes, understanding effective test taking strategies and putting them into practice reduces test anxiety and improves scores for college students.
The study titled Teaching Test-Taking Strategies: Importance and Techniques concludes about test taking strategies: “Directly, these strategies help students increase their scores on tests through the effective use of their time, effort, and test conditions. Indirectly, using appropriate test-taking strategies affects other factors such as reducing test anxiety and improving attitudes toward tests.”
What Are Common Strategies to Manage College Stress?
College stress extends beyond test taking to the daily experience of college students who are balancing academic and personal demands while striving for good grades and a high GPA.
Common and effective strategies for managing stress in college include identifying the stressors, developing time management skills, setting realistic and achievable goals, employing proven study techniques, eating a healthy diet and exercising, applying financial management skills, practicing mindfulness and seeking professional help when necessary.
These stress management techniques provide proven steps for counteracting both the causes of the stress they are experiencing and the negative effects harmful stress can have. Stress management strategies make you more resilient to stress and allow you to cope with it more effectively, so that stress does not hinder academic work and performance.