Test Anxiety

Generally, we all experience some level of nervousness or tension before tests or other important events in our lives. A little nervousness can actually help motivate us; however, too much of it can become a problem — especially if it interferes with our ability to prepare for and perform on tests.

Video on Test Anxiety by Anne Marie Theiler, M.S.


Test Anxiety Handouts to print for this online workshop:

And follow along to this PowerPoint presentation:

Support for Managing Test Anxiety at Western

The Tutorial Center offers assistance with test taking skills as well as tutoring on specific academic subjects. The Tutorial Center lists a number of test-taking and study strategies for specific types of tests.

Academic Advising Center: Test anxiety can sometimes be associated with excessive course loads. An academic advisor can help you plan your schedule so you have a reasonable course load. You can also schedule classes with professors you prefer, or professors who give the type of test on which you do your best.

Student Health Center: Sometimes the anxiety resulting from tests and academic pressures takes a physical toll. Headaches, insomnia, gastrointestinal or other problems may be experienced

Can I get special accommodations if I have test anxiety?

Students with academic accommodation needs must initiate a request for services through disAbility Resources for Students. Students with disAbilities are required, by law, to provide written documentation of their disAbility (from a qualified professional) before services can be provided. While “test anxiety” is not something for which an accommodation is usually given, students can develop strategies and skills for keeping themselves calm and clear-thinking in these potentially stressful situations.  The following tips suggest ways to get yourself into the “zone” for effective test taking.

Before the Test

Some nervousness and tension before tests is normal, and can help motivate us to focus and do our best. However, too much anxiety can interfere with learning and concentration. Try these strategies before your next exam.

Maximize Your Learning Strategies

Manage your time so that you study often and study well. Daily preparation, study, and review are much more effective for memory retention than cramming before an exam.

Use different learning modalities. Draw pictures, make outlines, review out loud, create flashcards to use visual, auditory, and kinesthetic areas of the brain to retain information.

Practice recognizing what to do—especially in classes that involve problem-solving like Math and Chemistry.  Learn to identify problem-types and patterns.

Be an active learner. Engage with the material. Organize the information in your own way and find things to be curious about. Make up your own test. Ask questions.

Take Good Care of Your Brain and Your Body

Make sleep a priority. Memory consolidates during sleep—don’t short-change yourself!

Maintain good health by eating the right foods and exercising regularly.

Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs. You want your brain functioning well so don’t mess with it!

Minimize caffeine use. Be careful not to increase your anxiety by drinking more coffee or cola.

Train Your Body to Relax

The anxiety and fear reaction is an automatic response in the body. However, you can train your nervous system to calm down through relaxation or meditation. To be effective, you need to practice a technique regularly, so start to train well ahead of exam time.

On the Day of the Test

Dump Your Worries Before the Test

New research suggests that expressive writing just before an exam can decrease test anxiety.Shortly before your exam, take ten minutes to write down all of your thoughts and worries and feelings about the test. Then fold them up and put them away.

Wipe Out Panic Thoughts During the Test

When the “panic button” gets pushed, the body quickly responds by preparing for danger.

The panic button can get triggered even by imagining things we find threatening. Thoughts such as “What if I flunk?”, “I can’t do this—I’m going to fail!”, or “I can’t think clearly!” can all trigger the panic button.   Don’t give them your attention during the test—wipe those thoughts away every time they surface.

Focus on the Present

Focus on taking the test in the present moment.  Don’t even think about the future or your grade—this is not the right time to solve those problems and worry will distract from the task in front of you.

Calm yourself with simple messages: “Focus on the test.”  “One problem at a time.”  “Just do the best you can.” “It’s O.K.—I can do this.”

Try Patterned Breathing

If you are distracted by physical anxiety, such as a pounding heart or shakiness, take a short breathing break. Start by breathing out all the air you can expel. Then breathe in deeply for the count of 5. Hold your breath for 5 counts. Then breathe out for 10 counts, letting out all the air you can. Repeat four or five times, then re-focus on the test.

Develop Effective Test-Taking Skills

  • Sit where you feel comfortable and where you are least distracted.
  • You can look over the test just enough to roughly plan out your time, but if this increases your anxiety, just start the test and look it over when you feel calmer.
  • Read the questions carefully. Read directions twice.
  • Start with something easy to build confidence.
  • Expect to see things that look unfamiliar or that you don’t know, especially on multiple choice tests.
  • Turn away from the clock and tune out the other students.

After the Test

  • Use each test as a learning expereince.
  • What did I learn about myself—where I succeeded and where I need to improve?
  • What did I learn specifically about this class and this professor’s testing style?
  • Which study strategies seemed to work well?
  • Which strategies decreased my anxiety—even a little?
  • What would I do the same and what could I do differently the next time?
Page Updated 08.19.2013