Updated: May 11, 2016
Today is the day. Your teacher informed you a week ago that you would be taking your Chemistry exam, and you studied. Hard.
A stack of papers sits on your teacher’s desk, ready to be passed out.
As she hands the test to each of your peers, you try to go over everything you’ve been studying in your head. What were hydrogen bonds again? Your palms start to sweat and your heart beats faster.
You need to pass this test. You did poorly on the last one, and C students don’t get scholarships. You need that scholarship to get into the college you want and… Oh no.
The panic sets in. You can’t remember anything.
What I just described is called test anxiety. It’s loosely defined as the fear of failing a test, and it can cause you to do poorly on exams that — judging by your efforts to learn the material prior — you shouldn’t. Here’s 8 tips to overcome YOUR test anxiety.
1. Plan ahead
There’s a section in that planner labeled “Upcoming” that serves as a reminder about — you guessed it — UPCOMING tests, quizzes, and assignments.
When you hear your teacher announce an upcoming test or quiz:
- Write it down under Upcoming.
- Take a look at how many days are left until that exam
Not only will this help you to map out a study plan to reduce your stress about taking the exam, but it will help you mentally prepare for taking it.
In sports, the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology references what is called the Performance Pyramid. This is essentially a tool to help you measure the effects of your mental state on how you perform in a sport.
When you think about it, exams could be considered an academic sport — aside from the strictly physical aspects of a sport, everything else can be applied.
See how under Preparation one of the steps is Mental Imagery?
2. Know what to expect
Take a look at the two examples of quiz questions below:
#1: In The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s hair is red, true or false?
#2: In The Little Mermaid, what is Ariel’s hair color? A) Red B) Blonde C) Brunette
Both questions are asking the same thing: In The Little Mermaid, what is Ariel’s hair color? But they ask this question in two different formats.
Ask your teacher what format the test will be in. Below are some standard test formats.
This is another part of the mental prep-work you are doing. By learning how your test is formatted prior to taking the test, you are reducing any anxiety that would result from the form of the questions asked.
We are less likely to be anxious when we are dealing with something that is familiar to us.
3. Choose the best study method
The way you choose to learn material can affect how you recall the information, sometimes making it more difficult in more stressful situations. Let me give you an example scenario:
Scenario: An exam asks students to write out the names of the 5o United States.
Jake: Memorized the states by looking at a map with all of them labeled. He was able to identify each state based on its shape… but this exam provides no map for Jake to look at. Jake struggles to visualize the map in his head.
Sara: Sara had spoken to the teacher prior to the exam and knew that she would not have a map to look at. To study, she memorized the song Fifty Nifty United States and as she takes the test, she hums the song and recalls each of the states in her head.
Question: In this scenario, both students studied for the exam and knew the material — so why did one student struggle?
Answer: Jake did not do the prep work of establishing what format his test would be, and as a result, he did not choose the best study strategy to compliment it.
If the situation was reversed and the test had asked students to fill in a blank map with the names of the states, Sara would struggle because she would know the names but not the shapes.
Both Jake and Sara needed to:
- Establish the format the test would be in
- Examine which learning style would be most effective and use this to study
4. Recognize your test anxiety symptoms
It’s important for you to recognize when you are experiencing test anxiety symptoms. In reference to the Performance Pyramid, this is both Managing Emotions and Managing Anxiety.
It means that instead of sitting there chewing your fingernails off while your teacher is preparing to hand the test out, you can:
- Identify the symptoms of test anxiety
- Take steps to reduce it
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America highlights 3 categories of symptoms:
- Physical symptoms. Headache, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness and feeling faint can all occur. Test anxiety can lead to a panic attack, which is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort in which individuals may feel like they are unable to breathe or having a heart attack.
- Emotional symptoms. Feelings of anger, fear, helplessness and disappointment are common emotional responses to test anxiety.
- Behavioral/Cognitive symptoms. Difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively and comparing yourself to others are common symptoms of test anxiety.
5. Identify WHY you have test anxiety
Here are some possible reasons you may be anxious when taking a test:
- I don’t think I studied enough.
- I’m not sure I understand this material.
- I didn’t do well on the last test.
- I’m not a good test taker.
- If I don’t pass this test, it’s going to ruin my plans for the future.
6. Replace negative thoughts with positive ones
Cleveland Clinic Wellness states that an average of 80% of our habitual thoughts on a given day are negative.
Unfortunately, our brains are hardwired to pay more attention to negative experiences than to positive ones.
So there’s nothing too surprising about you initially having negative thoughts towards you performance on a test. However, just because a thought is initially negative doesn’t mean you can’t reverse it to be positive!
Counteract your negative thoughts with positive ones. Think about how when you add a positive to a negative in math, both numbers disappear. Make the negative thoughts disappear so you can focus on what matters — answering the questions on your exam.
7. Start with what you know
When your teacher finally hands you your test, you don’t HAVE to start with the first question. If you know there’s an essay at the back (because you talked to your teacher about it!) and you don’t want to be rushed to complete the other questions, do the essay first.
I can’t tell you how great it was for me the first time I realized this. You don’t have to sit there for 20 minutes staring at that ONE question — don’t waste your test time!
Instead, answer everything that you know the answer to, and come back to the things you’re not sure of. You can spend the remaining time trying to work out the more difficult problems.
8. Accept that you may not know everything & Make it Smaller
“I have no idea.”
You are not a robot. You study for an exam and take steps to retain and recall that information, but your brain is not a computer database and there is a lot of information bouncing around up there. As a result, you will encounter test questions that you simply don’t know the answer to.
Does that mean you’re going to fail your exam, drop out of high school, be disowned by your parents and become homeless? Not at all.
Make it smaller
I’m going to introduce you to a skill that will help you with just about any stressful situation.
You can make it smaller.
Think of something that is way worse than you failing your test, and then compare the two tragedies. Failing a test might be bad, but what if you lost a leg?
Listen to the difference between these two statements:
“I failed my test today.”
“I failed my test today but at least I still have both my legs and can walk just fine.”
Failing a test is not good. But in the grand scheme of the universe, any grade is not the end of the world. Remembering this will take the pressure off.
Now that I’ve given you these tips for overcoming test anxiety, there will be a pop quiz on what you learned! — Just kidding. Let’s review the tips.
- Plan ahead
- Know what to expect
- Choose the best study method
- Recognize your test anxiety symptoms
- Identify why you have test anxiety
- Replace your negative thoughts with positive ones
- Start with what you know
- Accept that you may not know everything, and make it smaller!
Test anxiety shouldn’t hold anyone back from getting the grades they deserve!
Know any other ways to overcome Test Anxiety? Share your secrets with us in the comments below.
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