Test Anxiety

Test anxiety can appear before, during, or after an exam. When it rears its ugly head, remember to practice self-compassion, to focus on helpful strategies for success, and to seek help when needed.

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Ahead of an exam, students experience test anxiety for many reasons. Perfectionism leads some students to believe that their test performance won’t be good enough to meet their exacting standards. For other students, they are not familiar enough with the test material, resulting in a lack of confidence about their abilities. Some students might not have studied at all because their belief that they will never understand the material well enough has led to procrastination.

While there are many contributors to test anxiety, arming yourself with strategies can help you work your way through it. Preparation, organization, and practice can boost confidence by helping you focus on what you have control over rather than on the “unknowns” posed by your exam. 

Below are some strategies for dealing with anxiety before an exam:

Add test dates to your calendar.

At the beginning of the semester, add test dates to your calendar. Taking the time to do this step will enable you to see what assessments are on the horizon and to prepare for them intentionally. 

Get ahead of anxiety with early studying.

When a test is still a long way out, studying is less likely to make you feel anxious because the stakes of your learning don’t feel as intense or immediate. Even just knowing that you’ve started studying early can do a lot to relieve test anxiety. 

Check out the ARC webpage on Memory and Attention for some memorization tips; practicing some of these memorization strategies can help you feel more confident about the effectiveness of your studying.

Take practice tests.

Take practice tests regularly to check your understanding. Seek out support if you encounter concepts that confuse you, and keep your studies focused on the areas that are most challenging for you. 

Attend office hours, course question centers, and review sessions.

The teaching staff are there for you – to answer questions and to help you understand the material better.

Take advantage of ARC Peer Tutoring.

Take advantage of ARC peer tutoring for an additional layer of one-on-one support.

During an exam, it’s natural to feel the effects of increased adrenaline as you try to complete your work. Negative thoughts might circulate, your mind might go blank, or you might fear that you’ll run out of time. To mitigate the impact of these events, come prepared with some strategies to enact in the moment.

Below are some strategies for dealing with anxiety during an exam:

Visualize a successful outcome.

When you start to struggle on a particular problem or feel your mind go blank, it can be easy to imagine the whole test turning into a disaster. When this kind of negative thinking hits you, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and try to imagine seeing your score at the end and being satisfied with the outcome. Give your brain the opportunity to reset. Then, turn back to your exam, but not immediately to the place that made you feel anxious. Instead, try starting a new problem, or look back over one you feel you’ve answered successfully.  

View the test as a game.

It may be that you will have more success by reframing your anxiety than trying to eliminate it. Try to think of your exam as a game! Anxiety and excitement are two sides of the same coin: they both involve high levels of adrenaline. Come up with a “prize” for yourself when you finish the game so that your focus is on winning the prize and not on the grade you will receive on the exam.

Practice mindful breathing.

One way to combat anxiety during a test is to practice mindful breathing, which is the opposite of the shallow breathing that comes with anxiety and increases distress. Close your eyes, take a deep breath in and out through your nose, and focus on the feeling of the air passing through your nasal passages and lungs. Do this slowly a few times, always pulling your attention back to your breath when it tries to wander to the source of your anxiety. After a few breaths, you will likely feel able to move forward with your exam. Reconnect with your breath as often as you need (and time allows!).

Recite a positive academic affirmation in your head.

A lot of test anxiety arises from negative self-talk: from telling yourself that you aren’t good enough or smart enough to succeed. When that arises, have some affirmations in mind ahead of time to recite to yourself:  “I am prepared for this exam” or “I know this material” or “This is just a test.”

After a test, it’s not uncommon for students to dwell in uncertainty about their grade, experience regret about a lack of preparation, or beat themselves up for a mistake. 

Below are some ways to tackle post-test anxiety:

Identify what is in your control.

You can’t go back in time and change how you prepared for this exam, but you can change what you will do for future exams. If you were dissatisfied with your preparation for the last exam, figure out what is causing your dissatisfaction. (Did you fail to meet with a tutor? Did you cram the night before? Did you skip some of the reading?) Now devise a plan for addressing those causes before the next exam.

Reframe how you think of exams.

An exam is only a snapshot of your understanding of a specific set of information at a specific moment; it is not a measure of your value or intelligence in an enduring way. Instead of allowing your exam performance to define you, see your tests for what they are: opportunities to learn, not only about the material in question, but also how to approach assessments more successfully in the future! 

Seek additional feedback.

Grades are a kind of feedback: they tell you how well you understand the material based on what the course wants you to be able to do with it. It can be hard to move on from a grade you’re unhappy with if you don’t understand precisely what you did wrong. Although you can’t change the grade you received (unless the instructor clearly made an error when assessing your work), you can seek more feedback on it. Go to office hours and ask questions about what you missed. Go with an open mind – imagine how the answers might help you do better on a future assessment. Sometimes, you may get information that helps you feel better about your performance (e.g., perhaps most of the class missed the question you’re seeking feedback on). Regardless, if you understand your grade better, you will increase your odds of getting a higher one next time. 
Sometimes test anxiety can stem from something more serious. If you are concerned that your learning and engagement with coursework might be affected by depression, anxiety, or other sources of chronic stress, please reach out to Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS) or another trusted health professional to discuss additional support.

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