Strategies for Success: How to Minimize Test Anxiety
Psychologists call this mental state “zone out,” which is when the brain stops paying attention. I’m not a psychologist but as a professor, I can identify with students dealing with “zone out” as test anxiety. Before I continue talking about test anxiety, I would like to clarify that every human being is a little nervous or stressed before a test, and that that’s a normal reaction. I have anxiety every single time I have to take a test, but for me, the anxiety pushes me to perform well on my test. Four some people, however, the anxiety is more extreme. For them, test jitters are so sever that they interfere with concentration and test performance.
What are the causes of test anxiety?
One of the most common causes of test anxiety is low confidence. Students prepare for a test, but continue to think they are not going to perform very well on it. The student also could have had bad experiences of test-taking in the past (perhaps they’ve frozen up during a test in the past, or maybe the teacher warned them the test would be difficult). Those bad experiences can modify students’ confidence. Another cause could be a lack of preparation for the test, which is a big reason to be concerned about performance. Poor study habits -- like studying while watching TV, talking on the phone, lying in bed, or at dinner table while eating -- can make you less prepared for a test. In addition, students with poor time management skills might feel more anxious. Failure to properly organize homework and complete assignments, or waiting until the evening before starting to prepare, can increase test anxiety.
How does test anxiety affect your test performance?
As I mentioned above, test anxiety is a mental state in which the brain stops paying attention. It affects test performance because anxiety fills up the working memory in the brain and causes a person to blank out. In short, working memory is a stage of the memory, like short-term memory or long-term memory, but with a smaller capacity. If we are under pressure or feeling distressed, the working memory fills up and it will not respond. Working memory works similarly to the way a computer stores information; the more information that you put in it, the more slowly it works. The trick is to free your working memory during a test, so that information can be recalled from the long-term and abstract memory.
How can you reduce test anxiety?
Before the Test
• Make sure you adequately prepare for the test (read the books and complete your homework and assignments).
• Begin to prepare for your test as early as possible; don’t wait until the night before to do get started!
• Ask any questions before the test, so your professor can answer them.
• Keep a positive mental attitude as you study. Always think about doing well, not about failing.
• Do some physical or mental activities the day before the test, but don’t do so later in the evening. Some examples of these activities include playing video games or sports, going for a brisk walk or light jog, or watching a movie.
• Eat a nutritious meal two hours before the test (meat, eggs, and yogurt are great because they will provide you with protein, which helps your brain power).
During the Test
• Find the best place to take a test and have all the materials ready (for online students, find a quiet place in your house where you’ll have no distractions).
• Look your test over and read all of the directions twice.
• Stay relaxed during the test (if needed, take some deep breathing breaks).
• Don’t panic, even if you find the test difficult.
• Answer the easy questions first.
• Once you finish the test and have handed it in, forget about it. There is nothing more you can do until you’ve been given the results.
Diego Hernandez is the director of tutoring services at Ivy Bridge College. He has an M.B.A. and is regular contributor on The Bridge.