Tips to Excel with Test Anxiety

Spring is the time students start looking towards taking their end of course exams or college entrance exams that often have great impact on high school graduation or college admissions. In the state of Florida, our students have been taking these "high stakes" tests since elementary, and for many students they bring a sense of dread, confusion, and downright fear.

I have spoken with so many students who go through this every year, where hard working students continue to not make the scores despite excelling in the classroom. 

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Because there are many angles to this topic, this will be a 3 part article:

1. Tips to Excel with Test Anxiety

2. When to Worry About Test Anxiety

3. College Admissions: When Your Test Scores Aren't High Enough

Test Anxiety's Impact

Research has pointed that close to 25-40% of students have some type of test anxiety. While some anxiety is normal, and can help mental and physical alertness, too much anxiety can decrease academic performance by over 12% percentile points over students with low test anxiety. It can also hinder students social, emotional, and behavioral development.

While it is completely normal to be nervous before a big exam, test anxiety manifests in students either through different symptoms. Students can feel:

Emotional- Feeling anger, hopelessness, disappoinment

Behavioral- Sweaty palms, upset stomach, headaches

Cognitive- Trouble concentrating, forgetfulness, negative thinking, fear of failure

When students feel these symptoms, often in combination, it can negatively impact their concentration, cause physical distress, and decrease performance. This then perpetuates the anxiety in these situations.

What To Do About Test Anxiety

If you or your child exhibit some of these symptoms, there are some techniques that help.

Before & During the Test

1. Learn How to Study Effectively- There are many different ways to study, however, students need to find what works best for them and their learning styles. Ideas include note-taking, highlighting, reading out loud, notecards, study partners, avoid multitasking, etc. Here are some great articles on the topic for further explanation. 


How To Accommodate for Different Learning Styles (UMass)

What Learning Style Are You? (WGU)

Finding your Fit: The 4 Learning Styles (Rasmussen)

2. Study Early and In Similar Places- Humans are creatures of habit, and when it comes to studying we are no different. Studying in the same place over time has been shown to improve retention. However, that place should be  similar to the student's testing environment. Best place is at a quiet spot at a desk (not on a bed as our brains are wired that beds are for sleepy time!). If a teacher/ professor allows music, notecards, open book, etc. then students should use those same things while studying. If it is a timed test, students should mimic this stressor and try to work with a study guide (the second or third time) by setting a timer and see if they can complete the work in the allotted time. 

3. Establish a Consistent Pre-Test Routine- When I get nervous, I find I have to use the bathroom! So before any test or big situation, I make sure I do this before so I don't worry about it during! I also grab a snack and get a drink. Establishing a pre-test routine to minimize distractions, such as checking to ensure you have the right materials, eating a snack, using the bathroom, etc. are extremely helpful at taking some of the worry away.

4. Talk To Your Teacher- Despite what students often think, teachers are here to help and want to see students successful. Often, just asking the teacher about what will be on the test and ways to prepare provide more insight and reduce nerves. As well, letting them know you have testing anxiety can help solve issues before the arise.

5. Learn Relaxation Techniques- Organizing your thoughts through some deep breathing techniques, stretching, and mindfulness can be beneficial. Taking a few seconds to gently roll your neck and shoulders, move side to side, make fists and release helps with bloodflow and stiffness. 

6. Healthy Eating-  It's easy in our face paced society to "grab-and-go" for our morning meals. Students who have test anxiety should consider filling their meals with more complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, than those in high sugar, simple carbohydrates, those often found in cereal, according to the Harvard Health Publishing . The University of Rochester also stated to eat high-protein snacks, such as nuts and cheese, help balance alertness. A great article for more specifics is, 12 Best Brain Foods Before Taking a Test.

7. Exercise- Similarly to relaxation techniques, regular exercise has been shown to release endorphins and decrease tension in the muscles, where stress often is held. Exercise increases blood flow circulation providing your brain with more oxygen to work properly. This works extremely well when done during study sessions to break up long periods of sitting and studying.

8. Get Plenty of Sleep- Students often cram the night before to go over any missed information, sometimes at the cost of their sleep. Cramming will not be beneficial if it leaves the mind and body fatigued for the big test. It is better to go to sleep early and wake up a bit early to review one more time. Teenagers need anywhere from 8-10 hours of sleep an evening, and anything less can increase test anxiety and decrease academic performance.

In all, if you have test anxiety, you need to review all your current test habits and see where there can be room for improvement. Take the above 8 tips, and give yourself a score from 1-10 (1 being never do and 10 being always do), and the things you score lower on, try for the next test to increase your score. Then analyze- How did that help? Did I feel better? Where are other areas I can improve? 

As mentioned, stay tuned for the next 2 articles!

Dr. Amanda Sterk, College UnMazed