• Heather Lord

Test Anxiety and How to Avoid It

We've all felt some level of anxiety when taking a test, especially when the stakes are high. Some level of anxiety is actually good. It motivates us to study and to scrutinize our work a bit more than usual. However, sometimes this anxiety can become debilitating. Students who are prone to testing anxiety can take a few extra steps to help alleviate their anxieties.

1. Study

This one sounds obvious, but students who have dedicated time to studying the material feel more confident going into the actual exam. However, the way that students study is crucial. Research has shown that rereading and highlighting textbooks or notes is one of the least effective ways to study. Students are much more likely to retain information if they use study methods that force them to answer questions in their own words. Using flashcards is a great example of this. Rewriting notes on a blank sheet of paper, as opposed to just rereading them, helps students learn what information they have retained and what information still needs review.

2. Take Timed Practice Tests

The timing is often the biggest stressor for students with test anxiety. Students can start by taking a test with a stopwatch (that counts up), not a timer (which counts down). This eliminates the ticking-time-bomb feeling. Once they know how long it takes them to complete a given test, students can try to beat their own time on subsequent tests. Eventually, students can switch to using a timer, but only after they know what they are capable of in the given time frame. Once students can achieve their goal score in a practice exam, the official exam is much less stressful. Replicating something a student has already done is much less pressure than trying to achieve new personal best.

3. Visualize the Big Day

This is a tip we can borrow from triathletes and other athletes who train for months in preparation for a high-stakes one-day event. As part of their training regiment, it is common to integrate mental training as well. We can trick our brain into becoming more familiar with a situation by simply imagining it. Students preparing for an ACT or SAT can visualize test day from the moment they wake up to the moment they are leaving the testing center. The week of the test, spend 10-15 minutes every day imagining what the test will feel like, look like, even smell like.

4. Make a Plan

Students who are scrambling to find their calculator on the morning of the exam are inevitably more stressed. Get organized the night before. On the Friday before the exam, pack a bag with your admission ticket, photo ID, #2 pencils, erasers, a charged calculator (or replacement batteries), a water bottle and a snack. Eat a healthful dinner the night before, and by god, if you do nothing else, go to bed on time! Be mindful that teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep. Know when to arrive at the testing center and set a reliable alarm based on when you need to arrive. In the morning, be sure to eat breakfast (think oatmeal or eggs) even if you normally skip this meal.

5. Warm-up

We've all experienced that fatigue that we only get in first period. To avoid this, do a warm-up problem over breakfast. Don't pick the hardest math problem; this will only create more anxiety. Instead, try an easy math problem or a problem from any section you feel confident in. Even reading a news article will help. The idea is to get your brain "in the zone." This can help eliminate test-day jitters.

6. Ask for Help

For some, debilitating anxiety might be a more pervasive challenge. If a student is experiencing anxiety on every test at school, or in everyday situations, it might be time to seek outside help. In addition to a psychologist and/or psychiatrist, students can go to their school counselors. Students can set up a Individual Education Plan (IEP) at their school which might allow them to take exams in an isolated room or with extended time. If needed, these accommodations can be used during an ACT or SAT. Sometimes, merely not being able to compare progress with neighboring students alleviates test anxiety completely.


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