Chapter 6 Test Taking

6.1 Test Anxiety and How to Manage It


Taking tests and exams can be stressful. Some people get very anxious before or during a test and it can impact their test results.

Exercise: Testing Your Test Anxiety

Take the true-or-false quiz below (circle T for true or F for false). There are no wrong answers.

I have a hard time starting to study for a test. T F
When studying for an exam, I feel desperate or lost. T F
When studying for an exam, I often feel bored and tired. T F
I don’t sleep well the night before an exam. T F
My appetite changes the day of the exam. (I’m not hungry and skip meals or I overeat—especially high-sugar items like candy or ice cream.) T F
When taking an exam, I am often confused or suffer mental blocks. T F
When taking an exam, I feel panicky and my palms get sweaty. T F
I’m usually in a bad mood after taking an exam. T F
I usually score lower on exams than on papers, assignments, and projects. T F
After an exam, I can remember things I couldn’t recall during the exam. T F
A person surrounded by a bright purple light looking stressed out
Anxiety overwhelms

If you answered true to any of the statements in the table above, you have suffered some of the symptoms of test anxiety. Most people have experienced this. It is normal to feel stress before an exam, and in fact, that may be a good thing. Stress motivates you to study and review, generates adrenaline to help sharpen your reflexes and focus while taking the exam, and may even help you remember some of the material you need. But suffering too many stress symptoms or suffering any of them severely will impede your ability to show what you have learned. Test anxiety can be defined as “a state of uneasiness and distress before and during a test that often lowers performance.” Anxiety during a test interferes with your ability to recall knowledge from memory as well as your ability to use higher-level thinking skills effectively. To learn more about  critical thinking and study skills, see Chapter 5 Study Skills.

There are steps you should take if you find that stress is getting in your way:

  • Be prepared. A primary cause of test anxiety is not knowing the material and not knowing what to expect. If you use good study habits and review regularly, this stressor should be greatly reduced if not eliminated. You should be confident going into your exam. Cramming at the last minute, or feeling unsure of your knowledge of course material can increase your stress level.  Make sure to find out how the exam is structured and what material to study. Double check the exam time and location. 
  • Address negative thoughts. Your own negative thoughts—“I’ll never pass this exam” or “I can’t figure this out, I must be really stupid!”—may move you into spiraling stress cycle that in itself causes enough anxiety to block your best efforts. When you feel you are brewing a storm of negative thoughts, stop what you are doing and clear your mind. Go for a walk. Confide in a friend. Meditate. Do some deep breathing.  Don’t go back to work until you feel the tension release. Sometimes it helps to take a deep breath and shout “STOP!” and then proceed with clearing your mind. Once your mind is clear, repeat a reasonable affirmation to yourself—“I know this stuff” or “I will study hard until I know this stuff”—before continuing your work.
  • Visualize success. Picture what it will feel like to get the grade you want. Translate that vision into specific, reasonable goals and work toward each individual goal. Visualize success of each goal. Take one step at a time and reward yourself for each goal you complete.
  • It’s all about you! Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to other students in the class, especially during the exam. Keep focused on your own work and your own plan. Exams are not a race, so it doesn’t matter who turns in their paper first. In fact, those who take more time have the ability to explain their points more fully or to check their work for mistakes. Worrying about why someone turned their paper in early is counterproductive and will only cause additional anxiety.
  • Have a plan and follow it. As soon as you know that an exam is coming, you can develop a plan for studying. As soon as you get your exam paper, you should develop a plan for the exam itself. This will be discussed further later in this chapter. Don’t wait to cram for an exam at the last minute; the pressure you put on yourself and the late night will cause more anxiety, and you won’t learn or retain much.
  • Make sure you eat well and get a good night’s sleep before the exam. Hunger, poor eating habits, energy drinks, and lack of sleep all contribute to test anxiety. Going to bed early with the assurance that you worked hard to prepare for the test goes a long way to experiencing peace going into an exam.
  • Arrive early. Trying to cram or leaving things to the last minute can cause a huge amount of stress if you end up frantically racing to the exam. It increases anxiety when you are worried about being late. It’s even worse if you actually are late. You’ll have the added stress of entering the exam room late and you’ll lose valuable time that could have been spent doing the test. This kind of anxiety can last all the way through the test.  Prepare for the unexpected so that a late bus or a traffic jam doesn’t throw you into a state of anxiety. Be early!
  • Chill! You perform best when you are relaxed, so learn some relaxation exercises you can use during an exam. Before you begin your work, take a moment to listen to your body. Which muscles are tense? Move them slowly to relax them. Tense them and relax them. Try it right now. Exhale, then continue to exhale for a few more seconds until you feel that your lungs are empty. Inhale slowly through your nose and feel your rib cage expand as you do. This will help oxygenate your blood and re-energize your mind. Go online for many more ways to deal with stress.
  • Get help. If exam anxiety is persistent and debilitating, and if it is getting worse despite your best effort to address it, seek help from Student Services.

Video: “Calm Test Anxiety & Relaxation Breathing Technique” (length 3:23)

Exercise: Talking Back to Your Anxious Self

You’ve learned how negative thoughts contribute to test anxiety and keep you from doing as well as you can. Take some time to disarm your most frequent offenders. From the following list, select three negative thoughts that you have experienced (or write your own). Then fill in the second and third columns for each statement, as shown in the example.

Examples of negative thoughts:

  • I don’t know anything… What’s the matter with me?
  • If I fail this test, I’ll flunk the course.
  • I should have studied more… I’ll never make it through.
  • I just can’t think… Why did I ever take this course?
  • I know everyone’s doing better than I am.
  • If I fail this test, my spouse (or partner, parents, teacher, friend) will be mad or disappointed in me. I don’t know how I can face them again.
  • I’m going to be the last one done again… I must really be stupid.
  • I’m getting really tense again; my hands are shaking… I can’t even hold the pen.
  • I can’t remember a thing… This always happens to me… I never do well on anything.
What are your anxious statements?
My anxious statement How rational is this thought? Do you have any evidence that it is true? Reasonable reinforcing or affirmation statements you can use to replace it.
Example: I’m drawing a blank.…I’ll never get the answer…I must really be stupid. I’ve missed questions on things that I studied and knew before (but still passed the test anyway.)


It’s not reasonable to think I’ll never get the answer. I have forgotten things before that came back to me further along in the test.

I studied this and know it. I’ll visualize where it’s written in my notes to help me trigger my memory. I’ll come back to this at the end and I should think of it by then. I’m not stupid. I will get this.

Key Takeaways

  • Some stress before a test or exam is common and beneficial.
  • Test anxiety is stress that gets in the way of performing effectively.
  • The most common causes of test anxiety are lack of preparation and negative attitudes.
  • The key to combating test anxiety is to try to reduce stressors to a manageable level rather than try to eliminate them totally.

Exercise: Managing Stress

  1. List three (or more) things you should do before a test or exam to combat test anxiety.
  2. List three (or more) things you can do during an exam to reduce stress.

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6.1 Test Anxiety and How to Manage It Copyright © 2020 by Mary Shier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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