Students around the United States experience test anxiety as early as grades 2-4, according to the American Test Anxieties Association. This sense of dread boils down to a fear of failure, a fear which becomes a major impairment on all academic levels, from elementary school to college.
The problem affects around 20% of students in a severe manner, while about 16% of students suffer from test anxiety on a more moderate scale. This is important, because this anxiety often leads to poor morale in student populations and an avoidance of schoolwork in general.
Fear of failure is not the only culprit. Test anxiety is often fueled by other factors, such as poor preparation that leads to a feeling of being overwhelmed. Likewise, a poor test-taking history can contribute to a negative mindset that influences performance and brings about feelings of unease. All of which increase the amount of pressure a student feels when taking an exam.
According to research from the American Psychological Association, the feeling of being under pressure “taxes working memory resources necessary for demanding computations.” In other words, the more pressure students feel, the less likely they are to be able to access information in their minds with the same efficiency they experience in low-pressure situations.
Recognizing the Signs of Test Anxiety
Students with test anxiety are likely to exhibit a number of symptoms, be it physical, emotional or behavioral. Physical symptoms may include headache, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, light-headedness, feeling faint, rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath.
Not everyone shows physical signs of stress, however. For some, feelings of anger, fear, disappointment and helplessness are symptomatic of an emotional response. In others, behavior is the symptomatic clue that indicates anxiety. Difficulty concentrating, comparing one’s self to others and persistent negative thinking are all behavioral cues that display some level of test anxiety.
Tips for Reducing Test Anxiety
If feelings of anxiety are overwhelming you due to an upcoming test, there are strategies that will help you quell your angst and give you the best shot at tackling your exams as easy as the rest of your course work.
- Prepare. Beyond your typical study habits, it’s a good idea to read the test guidelines so that you know specific dates for testing, the time you’ll have to complete an exam and any other important information outlined by your professors. It’s also a good idea to check your computer ahead of time to ensure you don’t experience any technical difficulties.
- Write down your thoughts and feelings. Work in clinical and social psychology shows that journaling decreases the tendency to worry and alleviates depression. Doing so will free the working memory to focus on the task of taking the test, thus allowing you easier access to the information stored in your brain.
- Learn to relax. Deep breathing, positive manifestations, and learning how to relax muscles individually are all methods of calming yourself before or during an exam.
- Get help if necessary. If feelings of anxiety are overpowering and crippling your ability to work effectively, consulting a psychologist, school counselor or advisor to help get a better grasp on your feelings and behaviors may be a good idea. Many schools and employers offer counseling services or employee assistance programs that can help you cope.