Have you ever dreamed that you were back in school, staring at a blank test that you’d forgotten to prepare for? If so, you’re far from alone.
No matter how many years ago you graduated, you can probably remember the anxiety that came with an upcoming exam. But while some nervous anticipation is normal, some students experience more severe test anxiety that can impair their ability to perform on assessments. More importantly, test anxiety can make attending school intensely stressful.
While it’s difficult to measure the prevalence of test anxiety accurately, some researchers have estimated that up to half of students may experience it at some point. Elementary school students and adolescents experience test anxiety at higher rates, as do high-achieving students who care deeply about their academic performance.
Tackling test anxiety takes a collaborative approach that involves families, educators, and students. Fostering a supportive learning environment and sharing test anxiety tips can go a long way in reducing students’ fears. Read on for actionable strategies for test anxiety identification and reduction.
Understanding Test Anxiety
So, what is test anxiety? To put it simply: It’s a type of performance anxiety. Just as some individuals experience intense fear when they play an instrument or sport in front of others, students with test anxiety show symptoms in situations involving academic evaluation. In addition to exams, students might experience test anxiety when delivering a presentation or participating in class. This anxiety can make it difficult for students to demonstrate their true knowledge and abilities.
While test anxiety is not a diagnosable psychiatric condition, in some cases, it’s a symptom of a broader issue such as generalized anxiety disorder. Since 50% of lifetime mental illness appears by age 14, it’s important to evaluate students who demonstrate symptoms of test anxiety. Students with learning disabilities such as ADHD are also more likely to experience test anxiety.
And even if a student’s test anxiety is not a symptom of a mental health or learning challenge, it may indicate that they suffer from low self-esteem or an extreme fear of negative evaluation.
But there’s good news. Test anxiety is highly treatable, and reducing anxiety leads to improved grades and test performance.
Symptoms of Test Anxiety
How can you tell whether a student is suffering from test anxiety or just nerves? According to the University of North Carolina, symptoms of test anxiety vary between individuals and can be physical, emotional, or cognitive in nature.
- Excess sweating
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
- Negative thoughts
- Racing mind
- Difficulty focusing
- Impaired memory
- Negative comparison to others
For some students, the symptoms of test anxiety might escalate to panic attacks, which can cause intense discomfort and sensations like chest pain or inability to breathe.
Causes of Test Anxiety
The causes of test anxiety are varied and can include everything from a physical predisposition to stress to messaging that students may have received from their parents, teachers, or peers. For most students, multiple factors contribute to test anxiety.
Perfectionism and fear of failure
Students who tend toward perfectionism, meaning they hold themselves to extremely high standards and may tie their self-worth to their achievements, experience test anxiety at higher levels than their peers.
Several studies have demonstrated that low self-esteem can lead to higher test anxiety, possibly because students underestimate their intelligence and academic abilities.
Past negative experiences
If a student has done poorly on an assessment in the past and experienced negative consequences, such as disappointing their parents or teacher, it’s natural to develop anxiety that the same event could happen again.
Lack of preparedness
Test anxiety can be a sign that a student has not mastered the subject matter. Sometimes, this simply means they haven’t studied enough. In other cases, it could point to anything from distractions in class to a learning disability.
Test anxiety is a real challenge, but there are many ways to manage and overcome it. The tips below offer a good starting point for many students. However, if you’re concerned that a student’s test anxiety could be a symptom of a more serious mental health condition, seek help from a licensed professional.
How to Deal with Test Anxiety
Tips for Students
Prepare as much as you can.
Start studying well in advance of the exam. Familiarize yourself with the test format and take practice tests if they’re available. If you’re struggling to learn the material, ask your teacher to suggest different study methods that might work better for your learning style. When you know you’ve done your best to prepare, you’re much less likely to feel anxious. Learning test-taking strategies can also help you feel prepared for exams.
Test-Taking Tips for Students
When taking multiple-choice exams, it can be helpful to approach each question using the following steps:
- Read the entire question before attempting to answer it.
- Try to answer the question without looking at the choices. Then, look at the choices to see if your answer is the same as, or close to, one of the choices.
- Eliminate the answers that you know are not correct.
- Choose the correct answer, or make an educated guess and select the option that most closely matches with your original thinking.
Take care of your body.
Don’t be tempted to pull an all-nighter studying for the exam. Our brains perform much better when they’re well-rested, and a good night’s sleep will also help you feel calmer. Make time to exercise and eat healthy foods leading up to the test, too. How you treat your body can have a big impact on your ability to overcome stress and perform at your best.
Make a plan for test day.
If you’re taking a test somewhere new to you, it’s wise to scout the location before test day so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. Plan to arrive well before the test begins to avoid last-minute stress. Be sure to eat a healthy meal beforehand and bring a water bottle.
Breathing exercises help everyone, from monks to military members, calm their minds, slow down their hearts, and find balance. If you feel yourself getting stressed or overly anxious, simply take a deep breath in and let it out slowly. Repeat 4-5 times until you feel yourself calming down. Then continue testing.
Just keep going.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, or even three questions in a row, move on to a question you can answer. Try your best to stay focused on the question before you and avoid falling into negative thoughts.
Tips for Parents and Families
Emphasize individual growth over achievement.
Research shows that students from households that emphasize character development and maturity experience less stress and anxiety and perform better in school than their peers whose families emphasize academic achievement above all else.
Cultivate a big-picture perspective.
Many high-achieving students worry excessively about getting into a highly competitive college. Avoid feeding the narrative that there is only one path to success and help students cultivate a sense of self that isn’t limited to outcomes like assessment results or college admissions.
Help students find balance.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of overscheduling, but students need downtime to rest and spend time with their loved ones without the pressure of achievement. Carve out time for family dinners and relaxing, low-stress activities.
Tips for School Leaders
Offer behavioral and mental health awareness training.
Understanding the signs that a student is unduly stressed will allow educators to intervene appropriately before the situation escalates.
Make counseling easily available to students.
Ensure your school has enough psychologists and social workers and simplify access to them for students.
Focus on school culture.
Work to destigmatize mental health challenges and encourage a culture of sharing and empathy. It can also be helpful to celebrate students’ non-academic achievements, like volunteerism, instead of focusing solely on grades and college admissions.
Communicate openly with parents.
Share information about test anxiety and other mental health challenges with parents and offer the tools they need to support their children.
Test anxiety, though challenging, is a shared experience for students of all ages. Recognizing the symptoms and causes of test anxiety is crucial for fostering a supportive learning environment. Families, students, and educators should implement actionable strategies and emphasize individual growth, balance, and self-care to help overcome test anxiety.
Learn more about assessments developed by ERB and get tips on preparing for test day.