Top Strategies to Overcome Test Anxiety and Aim for Success
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Sweaty palms. Waking up in a cold sweat. Racing heart. Maybe you’ve experienced the physical symptoms of testing anxiety: the fear that grips many people when they think about upcoming tests and exams. It can range from mild worries all the way up to full blown panic attacks. In many ways, this anxiety can be debilitating — and potentially hold you back from your best academic performance.
As a former teacher, I’ve helped my students work through this anxiety, and I want to pass on my top tips to you today. With a few handy strategies in your toolkit, taking tests and exams will become, if not exactly fun, a whole lot easier to handle.
What is test anxiety?
Feeling nervous about tests is, in some ways, a natural response to being asked to demonstrate your skills or knowledge. A little nervousness can be healthy. It can bring us the motivation to work harder and even the energy to perform at our peak on the day. But, if test anxiety gets too high, it can really interfere with your mental and even physical health.
Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety, in which the pressure to deliver on the day just becomes too much. This can combine with a fear of failure and the consequences of not meeting expectations.
This might get worse if you’ve had poor test performance in the past, or, conversely, if you normally do well. Sometimes, the fear of disappointing everyone can be just as bad.
Test anxiety will probably be worse if you are underprepared, or feel so. Your level of self-esteem and confidence can also have an impact. Some people will never feel like they can succeed, no matter how much preparation they’ve done.
Preparing well for our tests is obviously important. There are lots of things we can do to prepare our mindset and our bodies as well as just studying the content. Being aware of what the symptoms of anxiety can be is a great step in being able to fight them.
Physical symptoms of test anxiety
Test anxiety can manifest in a few different ways, including as physical symptoms. These can include:
- Shortness of breath: Feeling like you’re struggling to catch your breath is a common symptom of a panic attack. Panic attacks can be scary and can take some time to pass. If you need more support with panic, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America gives more resources for those who experience panic attacks here.
- Rapid heartbeat: When we are in a ‘fight or flight’ situation, our body releases adrenaline to help our body survive. The heart speeds up to get more blood pumping, so if we need to run away from a predator, we’ve got the resources! Unfortunately, our brains can’t always tell the difference between an approaching cheetah and sitting a test. This can cause the rapid heartbeat characteristic of anxiety.
- Sweaty palms: We sweat when we’re anxious because the body going into adrenaline mode gets much hotter. This can be an unpleasant feeling.
- Nervous energy: All that adrenaline in the body needs to be released, which can make us feel restless.
- Nausea: Too much adrenaline can make us feel sick, and in extreme cases can actually cause vomiting.
- Headaches: A sore head is a common symptom of stress and anxiety.
- Dizziness: A rapid heartbeat and breathing quickly can cause us to feel dizzy because we are not getting enough oxygen to our stressed brain.
- Dry mouth: When our bodies are stressed, our desire to eat is suppressed (so we are ready to run instead of settling down to a big meal!). Our body shuts off our saliva glands, which can create an unpleasant dry mouth feeling.
- Tension in our muscles: Again, when our bodies get ready to run or fight, our muscles will get tense. This can lead to us feeling achy or stiff because in our real life test situation, there is no release for this tension.
The good news is that these physical symptoms, and the accompanying mental stress, can be managed and reduced with a few simple strategies.
Strategies to overcome test anxiety
The strategies that work for you might require some trial and error, because everyone will have different techniques that suit them. However, generally, we can group the strategies into those to put into place while you study, cognitive strategies to improve your mindset, and things to do on the day of the test.
Reducing test anxiety through planning and preparation
You’ve probably heard this before, but preparation for any test is absolutely key. Some techniques to apply in the study period include:
Take extra time for preparation and studying
Giving yourself plenty of time to study is super important for reducing stress. Work backwards from your test date to plan for adequate prep time. Depending on how many tests you’re taking and at what level, this may be a few weeks up to a few months.
Taking extra time means you can be confident that you have covered all the relevant material, and will mean that you don’t need to adopt a punishing study schedule closer to the test day.
Develop an effective study strategy
Research shows that a ‘little and often’ approach (also known as spaced repetition or spaced learning) is more effective than trying to learn everything at once. This means dividing up your learning into smaller chunks, and making sure you revisit these chunks frequently. Going over information repeatedly makes it more likely to go into your long-term memory.
You can get started with this by creating a list of the content you need to learn and dividing it up into smaller blocks. Create a plan to review each block three or more times during your study period.
There is a range of apps you can use to create digital flashcards with spaced repetition technology (Anki is a classic example). The app will bring up the information for you periodically and, if you can remember the content well, it will not show you the card as often. If you don’t remember the material, it will show you the card more often. This makes the information easier to remember over time.
In addition, it’s important to find active study techniques that aren’t just re-reading your notes. Transforming your material into mind maps, flashcards, podcasts (recording and listening back to yourself), or even short videos (without spending time on flashy editing!) can really help you remember it.
There are loads of online tools to help you digest large volumes of material to make it easier to learn. An AI reader like Wordtune could be a useful addition to your toolkit. Its Read function summarizes long texts like articles or essays into snippets you can use for flashcards or similar learning aids. It also picks out the most important information that you need to learn and remember.
Remember to make time in your study schedule to eat properly (with plenty of healthy foods to support your brain function), take breaks (sensible short ones, not three episodes of a Netflix show) and take some exercise, preferably outside. You are not a machine.
Cognitive strategies for overcoming test anxiety
It’s really important to address your mindset when it comes to reducing anxiety. Having a positive, confident mindset can lead to a smoother and more successful testing experience. Managing your mental health will also support the reduction in physical anxiety symptoms. You might try:
Thinking about your strengths and abilities
Building your self-esteem and confidence will help you remember that you have already achieved lots and will in the future! Even if not directly related to this test, write down your successes and strengths and refer to this list any time your inner critic pipes up.
Grab your notebook and write down three things you are good at to get started. Are you a great sports player? A supportive friend? Awesome at video games? Write it down!
Practicing positive self-talk
In terms of mindset, it’s also a good idea to be aware of your thought processes. Mental health experts recommend challenging negative thoughts with positive ones. For example, if you are telling yourself you’ll never pass the test, this is already resigning yourself to failure! Try to replace this with a positive mantra like, “I can pass the test” or “I deserve to do well.”
Allowing yourself to make mistakes without fear of failure
It’s important to develop a sense of resilience because there will always be questions in a test that we can’t answer perfectly. As you prepare, make sure you handle any failures with grace.
Remember, this is the perfect opportunity to learn from your mistakes and do better next time. The best thing that happened to me when studying for my math test was failing my final practice. It made me so determined to pass that I was able to gain almost full marks in the real thing.
Don’t forget that if the worst happens and you do fail your test, it is not the end of the world. Remind yourself of all the people who love and support you, and how awesome you are with or without the end test result.
Practical tips for reducing test anxiety on the day
So, the test is almost here. Time to deploy some simple techniques to make the day easier to handle:
Get enough sleep
It’s tempting to stay up all night studying, but a tired brain won’t hold much information and sleep deprivation can drastically reduce performance. Give yourself a break at least the afternoon before, and try to go to bed on time. Don’t put pressure on yourself to sleep immediately; listening to calming music, taking deep breaths, and visualizing a safe space can help you drift off and get adequate sleep.
Deep breathing exercises
Deep breathing on the day of the test can also help. This can trick your body into thinking everything is okay! Breathe in for at least four counts, hold it for four counts, then try to breathe out for at least six. Do this a number of times to get into a more relaxed, focused mode.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)
With PMR, you tense and relax each muscle at a time. This helps the body release its nervous energy and come back to a feeling of safety. You can do this ahead of your test on your own, or by using a guided meditation (plenty are available online).
Create a comfortable testing situation
Make sure you arrive at the test site early but don’t spend time studying or worrying beforehand. If you have had a previous exam, try to put this out of your mind and think about the upcoming exam only.
After the test, do not compare answers with anyone. In fact, it’s best not to discuss the test at all, because ultimately you can’t change what has happened, and going over which bits you may or may not have done right or wrong can cause further worry.
Seek professional help if necessary
If your test-taking anxiety is getting out of hand and trying to manage it yourself isn’t working, please seek help. You could ask your school if there is an in-house counselor. Or, your doctor may be able to refer you to a support service. It’s much better to reach out than suffer in silence.
Taking a test can be a stressful situation, but with some forethought, cognitive techniques, and ways to relax on the day, it doesn’t need to be a source of extreme anxiety. Remember that you’re not alone; lots of people want you to succeed, and you deserve the best possible chance to do well. Start by planning for your next test preparation period and consider how you will build up your positive mindset and aim high!