I’m in ninth grade. I’m taking a make-up history test: a one-question exam. Panicked thoughts race through my mind: “Only one question! And I don’t know how to answer it. Where do I start? This makes no sense to me. I’m going to fail!” My heart pounds wildly, and my face flushes pomegranate. A sweaty hand holds my pencil in a death grip.

Researchers estimate that between 10 percent and 40 percent of all students experience some level of test anxiety. For many, test anxiety amounts to little more than a few butterflies before opening their test booklets. Yet for others, it can be debilitating.

I can barely breathe. My mind races, not even trying to seek an answer to the question. Instead, fears and worries chase each other in the empty space that should contain all I’ve learned about the French Revolution: “I’m going to get an ‘F’! How will I face my teacher — or my parents? I’ll just die!”

While this was admittedly the sole episode of paralyzing test anxiety in my academic career, it’s reflective of what many students experience every time they are confronted with an exam. These students suffer from a persistent, self-defeating malady that prevents them from thinking clearly, let alone doing their best work.

Researchers estimate that between 10 and 40 percent of all students experience some level of test anxiety. For many, test anxiety amounts to little more than a few butterflies before opening their test booklets. Yet for others, it can be debilitating.

Understanding Test Anxiety

In a coffee shop populated with college students preparing for finals, I meet with Morgan Grotewiel, who is well versed in this topic from a counselor’s perspective. “Test-anxious people perceive testing situations as personally threatening, and they respond with intense emotional reactions,” she says.

A doctoral intern in counseling psychology, Grotewiel works at University Counseling Services at the University of Iowa. She has also worked as a research analyst for the Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium.

Grotewiel frequently meets with test anxious students. She confirms that the symptoms of test anxiety can include sweaty palms, racing heart, tight chest, and no one’s favorite: nausea. These are all what Grotewiel describes as “physiological symptoms you’d expect in reaction to a real threat, such as a bear.” Not surprisingly, when a test-anxious student is placed in a testing situation, the resulting “worry responses” interfere with test performance and, in the most extreme situations, can even lead to a full-blown panic attack.

Students who suffer from high test anxiety don’t score as well as their peers on tests and, not surprisingly, get lower grades. It’s a vicious cycle, as the more threatening a test seems, the worse the student scores, and the more test anxiety she has the next time.

The end result is debilitating test anxiety that can have long-term, detrimental effects on a student’s academic career, perhaps even to the point of opting out of post-secondary education — if he even gets that far.

A Test Anxiety Hierarchy

Grotewiel draws a pyramid to illustrate a variety of testing situations that may cause escalating levels of test anxiety.

At the apex is “college entrance exam” — perhaps the most important test that college-bound teens take in high school. She could as easily have written “mandatory competency exam,” as failing a mandatory state test can mean not receiving a high school diploma. These are high stakes, indeed. The pressure is on.

So what can a student do to overcome test anxiety? And what can we, as educators, do to mitigate the effects of anxiety on students’ testing performance?

How to Handle Test Anxiety

The best way for a student to prevent test anxiety is to know the content inside and out. Yet some students still panic, even after preparing well. Following are empirically supported strategies to share with test-anxious students.

Putting Tests into Perspective

For most students, test anxiety can be overcome or at least managed. Yet, if it is debilitating, encourage the student to seek help from a mental health professional. In extreme cases, highly test-anxious students may be able to receive accommodations, such as extended testing time.

As educators, we can help students put tests into perspective. One test — no matter how important it may be — does not define them. Life will go on, regardless of their score or even if they fail. Any embarrassment will eventually fade to a distant memory. Their loved ones will still love them. Their true friends will remain their friends. And other opportunities to demonstrate their competence will arise.


A Few Weeks to a Few

Days Before the Test

  • Study the material in spaced repetitions over time. Allowing some time between study sessions helps your brain deeply incorporate new knowledge. You’ll have better recall than if you wait to cram right before the test.
  • Take a realistic practice test or test yourself on the material. Psychologists call this “practice retrieval.” It’s more effective than studying the same subject matter over and over by rereading the text.
  • Use guided imagery meditation for systematic desensitization. For example, vividly imagine yourself driving to the testing site feeling confident and in charge. Step-by-step, picture yourself checking in, taking a seat, filling in your personal data, and beginning the test. See yourself confidently marking your answers, then turning in a completed test booklet with a satisfied smile on your face. Repeat the meditation each night before bed. “Just like with studying,” Grotewiel says, “the sooner you can start this preparation, the better.”
  • Replace negative thoughts with realistic ones. “But be careful. Telling yourself positive thoughts, such as I’m going to get the highest score anyone ever got on this test, can feel really fake,” Grotewiel cautions. “Instead, replace the thought I’m going to fail with I’m going to try my hardest to do well on this test.”

The Night Before the Test

  • Lay out your clothing and the items you’ll need for the test (e.g., pencils, calculators, admission ticket, photo ID, if required) before you go to bed.
  • Avoid family or friend drama. Keep it chill.
  • Go to bed early enough to get a full night’s sleep, but not so early that you lie awake worrying.
  • Plan to depart for the test early enough to account for unexpected delays, such as a detour or flat tire.
  • Listen to a relaxation tape or relaxing music to help you fall asleep.
  • Use progressive relaxation techniques if you feel anxious or have trouble falling asleep; e.g sequentially flex and then relax body parts from toes to head or vice versa.

On Test Day

  • Eat a well-balanced meal before the test.
  • Arrive at the testing site at least 10 minutes early. But don’t arrive too early with nothing to do but worry.
  • Use cognitive priming. Thinking about the subject matter in positive ways beforehand has been shown to reduce the effect of test anxiety on performance. For example, if you’re preparing for a math test, write down the habits of a good mathematician. Before a college entrance exam, write down what it takes to succeed in college.
  • In the testing room, take slow, deep breaths.

During the Test

  • Write down the time the test will end on the cover of your test booklet or on the first page of the section you’re working in.
  • Don’t spend too much time on any one question. If you get bogged down, skip it and move on.
Julia Wasson is the executive director of Doorway to College Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit located in Iowa City, Iowa. Doorway to College Foundation strives to make high-quality college preparation services — including test preparation for the ACT, PSAT, and SAT— accessible to students from all economic backgrounds. For more information, visit www.doorwaytocollege.org or call 877-927-8378. Check our blog for additional tips on test anxiety and other topics.

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