Module 3: Test Anxiety

Module 3: Test Anxiety

Test Anxiety

Test Anxiety And How To Control It

For many test takers, preparing for a test and taking a test can easily cause worry and anxiety. In fact, most students report that they are more stressed by tests and schoolwork than by anything else in their lives, according to the American Test Anxiety Association. Most of us have experienced this. It is normal to feel stress before an exam, and in fact, that may be a good thing. Stress motivates you to study and review, generates adrenaline to help sharpen your reflexes and focus while taking the exam, and may even help you remember some of the material you need. But suffering too many stress symptoms or suffering any of them severely will impede your ability to show what you have learned. Test anxiety is a psychological condition in which a person feels distressed before, during, or after a test or exam to the point where stress causes poor performance. Anxiety during a test interferes with your ability to recall knowledge from memory as well as your ability to use higher-level thinking skills effectively.

  • Roughly 16–20 percent of students have high test anxiety.
  • Another 18 percent have moderately high test anxiety.
  • Test anxiety is the most common academic impairment in grade school, high school, and college.

Below are some effects of moderate anxiety:

  • Being distracted during a test
  • Having difficulty comprehending relatively simple instructions
  • Having trouble organizing or recalling relevant information
  • Crying
  • Illness
  • Eating disturbance
  • High blood pressure
  • Acting out
  • Toileting accidents
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Cheating
  • Negative attitudes towards self, school, subjects

Below are some effects of extreme test anxiety:

  • Overanxious disorder
  • Social phobia
  • Suicide

Poor test performance is also a significant outcome of test anxiety. Test-anxious students tend to have lower study skills and lower test-taking skills, but research also suggests that high levels of emotional distress correlate with reduced academic performance overall. Highly test-anxious students score about 12 percentile points below their low-anxiety peers. Students with test anxiety also have higher overall dropout rates. And test anxiety can negatively affect a student’s social, emotional, and behavioral development, as well as feelings about themselves and school.

Why does test anxiety occur? Inferior performance arises not because of intellectual problems or poor academic preparation. It occurs because testing situations create a sense of threat for those who experience test anxiety. The sense of threat then disrupts the learner’s attention and memory.

Other factors can influence test anxiety, too. Students with disabilities and students in gifted education classes tend to experience high rates of test anxiety.

If you experience test anxiety, have hope! Experiencing test anxiety doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you or that you aren’t capable of performing well in college. The trick is to keep stress and anxiety at a level where it can help you do your best rather than get in your way.


TFI have a hard time starting to study for a test.
TFWhen studying for an exam, I feel desperate or lost.
TFWhen studying for an exam, I often feel bored and tired.
TFI don’t sleep well the night before an exam.
TFMy appetite changes the day of the exam. (I’m not hungry and skip meals or I overeat—especially high-sugar items like candy or ice cream.)
TFWhen taking an exam, I am often confused or suffer mental blocks.
TFWhen taking an exam, I feel panicky and my palms get sweaty.
TFI’m usually in a bad mood after taking an exam.
TFI usually score lower on exams than on papers, assignments, and projects.
TFAfter an exam, I can remember things I couldn’t recall during the exam.

Strategies for Preventing and Controlling Test Anxiety

There are steps you should take if you find that stress is getting in your way:

  • Be prepared. A primary cause of test anxiety is not knowing the material. If you take good class and reading notes and review them regularly, this stressor should be greatly reduced if not eliminated. You should be confident going into your exam (but not overconfident).
  • Practice! One of the best ways to prepare for an exam is to take practice tests. To overcome test-taking anxiety, practice test-taking in a test-like environment, like a study room in the library. Practice staying calm, relaxed and confident. If you find yourself feeling overly anxious, stop and start again.
  • Avoid negative thoughts. Your own negative thoughts—“I’ll never pass this exam” or “I can’t figure this out, I must be really stupid!”—may move you into a spiraling stress cycle that in itself causes enough anxiety to block your best efforts. When you feel you are brewing a storm of negative thoughts, stop what you are doing and clear your mind. Don’t practice having anxiety! Allow yourself to daydream a little; visualize yourself in pleasant surroundings with good friends. Don’t go back to work until you feel the tension release. Sometimes it helps to take a deep breath and shout “STOP!” and then proceed with clearing your mind. Once your mind is clear, repeat a reasonable affirmation to yourself—“I know this stuff”—before continuing your work.
  • Visualize success. Picture what it will feel like to get that A. Translate that vision into specific, reasonable goals and work toward each individual goal. Take one step at a time and reward yourself for each goal you complete.
  • It’s all about you! Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to other students in the class, especially during the exam. Keep focused on your own work and your own plan. Exams are not a race, so it doesn’t matter who turns in their paper first. Certainly, you have no idea how they did on their exam, so a thought like “Kristen is already done, she must have aced it, I wish I had her skills” is counterproductive and will only cause additional anxiety.
  • Have a plan and follow it. As soon as you know that an exam is coming, you can develop a plan for studying. As soon as you get your exam paper, you should develop a plan for the exam itself. We’ll discuss this later in this chapter. Don’t wait to cram for an exam at the last minute; the pressure you put on yourself and the late night will cause more anxiety, and you won’t learn or retain much.
  • Make sure you eat well and get a good night’s sleep before the exam. Hunger, poor eating habits, energy drinks, and lack of sleep all contribute to test anxiety.
  • Chill! You perform best when you are relaxed, so learn some relaxation exercises you can use during an exam. Before you begin your work, take a moment to listen to your body. Which muscles are tense? Move them slowly to relax them. Tense them and relax them. Exhale, then continue to exhale for a few more seconds until you feel that your lungs are empty. Inhale slowly through your nose and feel your ribcage expand as you do. This will help oxygenate your blood and reenergize your mind.
  • Come early and prepared. Come to the exam with everything you need like your pencils, erasers, calculator, etc. Arrive to class early so you aren’t worried about time. Try to avoid the pre-exam chatter of your classmates, as this may contribute to your anxiety. Instead, pick your favorite chair and focus on relaxing.
  • Put it in perspective. Take a minute to think about the three most important things in your life. They may be your family, your health, your friendships. Will you lose any of these important things as a result of the exam?  An exam is not life or death and it needs to be put in perspective.

Health and wellness cannot be overstated as factors in test anxiety. Studying and preparing for exams can be easier when you take care of your mental and physical health. The following are a few tips for better health, better focus, and better grades:

  1. Try mini-meditation to reduce stress and improve focus. Breathe in deeply, count to five, and exhale slowly. Watch your lower abdomen expand and deflate. Repeat five times.
  2. Get sleep! Although some students may stay up until 4 a.m. studying, it’s not a healthy habit and is usually counter-productive. Your mind is more efficient when you get enough quality sleep, so make sure to schedule enough time for rest. If you practice a good study schedule, there is no need for all-night cramming. Stick to your study plan, review for about an hour, and get a good night’s sleep.
  3. Eat well.  Have a healthy meal before your exam. Avoid energy drinks that will give you a temporary energy spurt, followed by a crash.  Stay hydrated.
  4. Don’t try to be perfect. You’ll alleviate a lot of anxiety by learning that just “doing your best” is something to be proud of—it doesn’t have to be perfect.
  5. Reach out for help. If you feel you need assistance with your mental or physical health, talk to a counselor or visit a doctor.

Watch this video from College Info Geek on Test Anxiety: How to Take On Your Exams Without Stress

Test Anxiety: How to Take On Your Exams Without Stress - College Info Geek



Controlling Negative Self-talk

You’ve learned how negative thoughts contribute to test anxiety and keep you from doing as well as you can. Take some time to disarm your most frequent offenders. From the following list, select three negative thoughts that you have experienced (or write your own). Then fill in the second and third columns for each statement, as shown in the example.

  • I don’t know anything.…What’s the matter with me?
  • If I fail this test, I’ll flunk the course.
  • I should have studied more.…I’ll never make it through.
  • I just can’t think.…Why did I ever take this course?
  • I know everyone’s doing better than I am.
  • If I fail this test, my dad (or husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, teacher) will be mad. I don’t know how I can face them again.
  • I’m going to be the last one done again.…I must really be stupid.
  • I’m getting really tense again; my hands are shaking.…I can’t even hold the pen.
  • I can’t remember a thing.…This always happens to me.…I never do well on anything.
My negative statementHow rational is this thought? Do you have any evidence that it is true?Reasonable reinforcing or affirmation statements you can use to replace it.
Example: I’m drawing a blank.…I’ll never get the answer…I must really be stupid.I’ve missed questions on things that I studied and knew before.I studied this and know it. I’ll visualize where it’s written in my notes to help me trigger my memory.




  • Test Taking Strategies. Authored by: Heather Syrett. Provided by: Austin Community College. LicenseCC BY: Attribution



  • Test Anxiety: How to Take On Your Exams Without Stress - College Info Geek. Authored by: Thomas Frank. Located at Rights ReservedLicense Terms: Standard YouTube