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Test anxiety? Here are some tips for exam success.

We’ve all been there. The big test is on Friday. We’ve studied all week. The edges of every note card in our backpack are scrubbed from their use and travel with us everywhere. Highlighters of all colours adorn our pages of carefully constructed notes. We’ve used every strategy we can think of. We can recite all of the answers verbatim and correctly. That is, until Friday when the teacher hands out the test. It’s all gone! Worst of all, once the paper leaves our hand, the answers all come flooding in.

Test anxiety affects a growing number of students and is not just limited to tests. Test anxiety is a situational form of the more generalized performance anxiety – feelings of apprehension or dread before an event. In effect, the feelings – physical, emotional, behavioural or cognitive – block the retrieval process. What you once knew is now stuck behind the mounting wall of an array of emotions that inhibit recall, decision making, critical thinking and knowledge application.

Although I wouldn’t classify myself as having test anxiety, I’ve seen it often over my years of teaching. Test anxiety tends to present more noticeably in those who put the most pressure on themselves and those who used blanket statements like “I always fail tests” or “I’m not good at Science, I never have been”. There was Organic Chemistry in college though. This class was my most notable experience that allows me to commiserate with anxious test takers. The averages on the tests were notoriously low, the questions were notoriously specific and detailed, and moreover, how was I, a student- athlete from a public school in Calgary supposed to compete with these genius prep-school products destined for Med School???

I treated these tests like a play-off hockey game. If pencils needed to be taped for use, I would have taped my pencil each time. Probably with white tape in the same pattern every time while sitting in a lucky seat in the auditorium of the class. No lie, I had a “pre-orgo playlist” that I listened to with my roommate before the test. I still can’t listen to Much Too Young by Garth Brooks without the feeling of impending Organic Chemistry doom.

From my experience here is a list of “tools” which helped me with my test anxiety.

·         Support from my friends in my study group, my teammates, my family

·         Knowing that I wasn’t in competition with everyone else in the class. It was just me vs. myself. If I could get out of my own way and allow my hard work to pay off by not over thinking EVERYTHING, I could do this.

·         The sense of pride in the fact I was willing to take on a big challenge and knowing I worked tirelessly for weeks to prepare.

·         The ability to block out everyone else’s voices right before the test – I didn’t need the noise of everyone else’s last minute cramming to cloud what I already knew.

·         The sense of preparation that came from doing the things that made me a successful student. By college, I had more or less fine-tuned these skills. Middle and High School students may not know what their most effective habits or strategies are, but each test can be viewed as a way to refine personal habits if you have awareness.

·         The ability to recognize the worst case scenario was I would fail the test. Just like a gold medal or “must win” tournament game, the nerves often stem from the notion that failure is either not acceptable or conversely, inevitable. When you lose you have a great opportunity to learn and improve. Therefore, I would turn that failure into a best case: I bomb this thing and figure out what aspect of my study habits needs to improve.

Below I will list typical emotions experienced as well as strategies to combat these when a student is overwhelmed. However, it is important to remember that just as each student will learn differently, each student’s anxiety will manifest somewhere on a spectrum of emotions.

Do you experience any of these during or before a test?

1) Nervousness – student may have elevated heart rate, racing thoughts, sweaty palms, feels fidgety in their seat.

Combat it with: Breathing in deep, relaxing the muscles of the neck and shoulders. You don’t have to drop down into a downward dog or anything (although I did see that before an archaeology test in college..), but adjust your posture into a stance of confidence and relaxation; open to big inhalations that expand your rib cage and perspective, and expulsion of the negative energy with each exhale.

2) Feeling scared – student is fearful, feels hopeless, has a pessimistic perspective, may be angry at themselves or the situation.

Combat it with: Remembering that getting a couple of questions wrong doesn’t necessarily mean you fail the test, let alone the course. Positive self- talk like “I can handle this”, “I’m ready”, or “it’s going to feel so good when I crush this thing!” can also help mitigate the negative feelings often coupled with test taking. Prepare over a longer period of time rather than cramming to avoid the pressure that piles on before test time as a result of trying to do too much the day of/ night before.

3) Feeling psyched out – student avoids studying or thinking about it, engages in negative self –talk, dreads the test.

Combat it with: Reassurance of the REALITIES surrounding the situation: you’re not nearly as bad at math as you say you are, your whole grade doesn’t hinge on this one test, and you’re prepared. Don’t think in certain or absolute terms where an outcome – especially an negative one - is inevitable. Think about the success, however small, that you’ve had and what you’re capable of. There are many people that believe in you, make sure you’re one of them!

4) Going blank – difficulty recalling what you know or remembering key points.

Combat it with:  Take a break from thinking about the question, come back to it later and imagine your notebook with the answers, or your teacher talking about the topic, or how your study partner phrased a topic a little differently that made more sense. Slowly read the words of the question rather than skimming through the question as a whole and determining that there’s no way you know this one. Circle key words, underline important information and take the time to digest the problem rather than feeling the knee- jerk of “oh no, I never knew this and I don’t even know what this is saying!”. Odds are, you’ve heard it and applied it all before, now you just have to do it again. Using cues to relate words or topics with each other -  like colour codes, specific locations on the page for certain things in your notes, or phrases to hear in your head – can help you remember.

The vicious cycle that is test anxiety is hard to overcome, but with practice on a combination of the strategies listed above, students can become more effective and engaged during tests. As we creep up on final exams, it’s important for student-athletes to recognize and find strategies to deal with test anxiety.

Next time you’re sitting down and you feel that impending doom coming, remember, as Garth Brooks would say, “[You’re] much too young to feel this damn old”. It’s just a test, it won’t alter your life plan, and there’s no need to worry if you’re prepared. Now find your tune, tape your pencil and go get ‘em!

Kath Surbey