Almost all students worry about how they will perform on tests. Sometimes, the worry of taking a test actually inhibits a student’s success. Often times these students label themselves as “bad test-takers.” These students may have an understanding of the curriculum, and studied for a test, but feel like they “choke”, or that their score doesn’t reflect what they know. Some students may feel anxious as soon as an instructor announces the date of a test, and then have a feeling of dread leading up to that date. Other students may feel confident about an up-coming test, but then feel a sense of “freezing-up” when they actually sit down to take it. These “bad test-takers” probably have test-related anxiety.
What is Anxiety?
To gain a deeper understanding, it’s important to reflect on what anxiety is and how it works in our brains. In caveman times, there were constant threats in day-to-day life that triggered a flight-or-fight response. When humans experience a fight-or-flight response to danger, the prefrontal cortex (the logic, reasoning, and problem-solving part of the brain) slows down in functioning. Then, the parts of the brain that control basic functions such as heart-rate and breathing start to take over. This is our brain’s way of getting ready to either fight or run away. When we either fight or run, we are released of the response, and our pre-frontal cortex goes back to it’s regular functioning. In the modern world, we aren’t faced with dangers the same way we were in prehistoric times, but our fight-or-flight response is still triggered. When this fight-or-flight response is triggered, but there is an absence of real danger no opportunity exists for the response to be released. As a result, we are stuck in a state where we are not thinking logically and we feel panicked because our breathing and heart-rate is picking up. This is anxiety, and it is not a helpful thing when you are trying to take a test.
What can you do to lesson test anxiety?
Study! Ok, duh. Anxiety can definitely stem from feeling a lack of preparation for a test. It makes sense that you would be worried for a test when you don’t have a grasp of the material it covers. A couple study/ preparation tips:
a. Space out the material. Cramming is never advisable. When an instructor announces the date of a test (which may be on the first day of class on the syllabus), look at a calender. Next, count the number of days you have to study. Then, find out how many chapters, units, or sections the test will cover. After that, figure out how to divide the material into manageable chunks to study.
b. Context Learning- this is the concept that your study environment should be similar to your test environment. Some students like to study is a busy location where there is a lot of background noise, but a testing situation is usually very quiet. If possible, try studying in an empty classroom or a library to get your brain used to a testing setting.
c. Be Positive! To go along with context learning, if your staying in a positive state of mind when you are learning and review material, hopefully when you recall the same material your mind will return to that positive state.
d. Warm UP! Your brain requires blood flow just like the rest of your body. An athlete might jog or do a couple of jumping jacks before a game. Doing a physical exercise can get blood flowing to your brain before a test. Similarly, warm up your brain like a muscle by reading a newspaper article, or just make it DO SOMETHING before a test! A lot of students I know (I have been guilty of this as well) roll straight out of bed, and get to class, but their brains are still in bed!
Deep Breathing Relaxation- Studies have indicated that using relaxation techniques before a test can improve one’s performance on a test. Deep breathing is effective when you feel anxious because it helps to shut down the fight-or-flight response. Intentionally taking deep breaths is showing your brain that you are consciously in charge, and that you are not in a dangerous situation. Here’s how to do it: take a deep breath through your nose. Hold it for four seconds. Let it out slowly through your mouth. Do this 4 times. An easy way to remember this is 4-square breathing (4×4). You can use this tool any time and in any place! Practice this when you study, and then do it right before a test.
Thought-Stopping- So many of us have negative thoughts that we are used to having. An instructor says, “Quiz on Friday!” and we think “Great, I’m so bad at quizzes. I’m going to fail.” Start paying attention to these thoughts. When you notice these thoughts, picture a big red “STOP” sign, and inside your head, yell “STOP!!!” You can think of this step like hitting a “reset” button on a computer. Unlike a computer, however, our brains will go back to the same negative thoughts, unless we make a change. So, after you have pictured a stop sign, and yelled “stop” in your head, replace the negative thought you just had with a positive mantra. Try not to make your mantra too extreme because then you won’t believe it. For example, don’t say to your self “I’m the best test-taker ever!” Instead, when the instructor announces a quiz Friday, say something along the lines of “Ok. I have two days to study, and I am getting better at taking quizzes.”