Test-taking anxiety can affect even the best of students. Students who participate in class, do their homework, and study well in advance of tests can still find themselves frozen with fear when they sit for exams.
Test anxiety is a widespread problem: Up to 20% of students report high levels of test anxiety, with an additional 18% affected by moderately high anxiety when they take tests, according to the American Test Anxieties Association.
What Is Test-Taking Anxiety?
Test-taking anxiety is a subset of performance anxiety — a mixture of distress, anxiety, and fear when in a situation where people are under pressure to perform at their best. A lack of executive functioning skills, such as prioritization or time management, can worsen test anxiety.
Many students get nervous before taking tests, and a little anxiety can actually help them perform better, keeping them alert and attentive. But test-taking anxiety causes students to “freeze up,” forget what they studied, and in severe cases, even causes students to pass out.
Test anxiety is most common in students with existing levels of anxiety or those with a tendency to be perfectionists. When left untreated, test-taking anxiety becomes a vicious cycle. The student is anxious about their performance on a test, leading to low test results. Poor test results imply the student was right to be concerned, increasing the likelihood that they will be more anxious on their next test, and so on until the cycle is broken.
Test-Taking Anxiety Symptoms
Test-taking anxiety symptoms include physiological, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. Stress causes the body to release adrenaline, readying itself for a “flight or fight” situation. Adrenaline causes physical test-taking anxiety symptoms, including the following:
- Dry mouth
- Muscle tension
- Rapid heartbeat
Increased anxiety results in a range of emotional and behavioral responses, none of which are conducive to sitting an exam:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty making decisions
- Emotional distress
- Feelings of apprehension
- Memory problems
- Negative self-talk
Persistent test-taking anxiety can affect a student’s entire academic journey, from kindergarten through college, and morph into performance anxiety in their careers. Severe test anxiety can result in avoidance behavior, such as skipping class on test days or even dropping out of school.
Test-Taking Anxiety Tips and Strategies
Students can learn strategies for reducing test-taking anxiety, such as the following:
- Remembering that the test is only one chance to show what they know. There will be other opportunities.
- Avoiding self-talk that presents themselves in absolute, all-or-nothing terms.
- Rewarding themselves after the test with some socialization, a movie, or other treats.
Anxiety can lead students to neglect basic needs, which negatively affects their academic abilities and worsens anxiety during tests. Before tests, students should remember to do the following:
- Maintain healthy nutrition and exercise habits.
- Study at a reasonable pace (no last-minute cramming) and take frequent study breaks.
- Get a good night’s sleep before the test.
- Have a healthy breakfast the day of the test and avoid caffeine, worsening anxiety.
- Do something relaxing if possible in the hour before the test.
- Avoid classmates who trigger anxiety and stress.
How to Get Over Test-Taking Anxiety
Test-taking anxiety is often a learned response to stress — it’s a habit students develop based on experience. This habit can be aggravated by depression, clinical anxiety, or learning disorders, but the good news is that with a little effort and dedication, students can change habits.
To reduce test-taking anxiety, students must work on replacing anxiety-inducing habits with positive, practical test-taking behaviors. By developing these previously unused executive functioning skills, students improve their confidence and self-esteem, reducing anxiety and improving test scores. Examples of executive functioning skills include the following:
- Learning to study effectively. Students who learn efficient study techniques and test-taking strategies find it easier to master classroom concepts. Confidence in their understanding of test materials relaxes students and reduces anxiety.
- Studying early and consistently. Students who cram for tests rarely retain learned information. A much better strategy is to study for short periods frequently and regularly, improving memory retention. Regular study helps students practice prioritization skills and time management, which are important executive functioning skills.
- Establishing a pretest routine. Students should experiment with pretest routines that help them relax, eventually creating a pretest habit that eases stress levels.
- Understanding what is on the test. Students who talk to their teachers about the test in advance better understand the concepts, skills, and knowledge the exam will test, improving their study habits and preparing them for success.
The executive functioning skills needed to reduce test-taking anxiety are not innate; they need to be learned. Students who have access to study skills classes can develop time management and independent study skills, but not all schools have such resources.
Working with skilled tutors is another way to improve executive functioning. Good tutors teach much more than subject matter. Tutors teach students how to study and prepare for tests, helping them develop a lifelong growth mindset that will benefit them throughout their academic journey and future careers.
Knowing how to get over test-taking anxiety can change the trajectory of your student’s academic path. Revolution Prep’s private tutoring service lets students develop self-confidence while mastering core subject concepts and test-taking strategies for anxiety. For more information on executive functioning skills and their importance for academic success, download our free executive functioning guide today.