Overcoming Test Anxiety

By: Hollis Wyatt, Amy Nasamran, M.A. & Suzi Naguib, Psy.D.

Jacob is a 13-year-old 7th grader. He loves to skateboard and hang out with his friends. Even though he is bright and hardworking, his performance at school is significantly affected by his test anxiety. On the morning of his math quiz, he walks into the classroom and slumps into his seat. He knows that he prepared for the quiz, but when the teacher enters the room, his heart races, his hands sweat, and he feels sure that he will not do well. When the teacher passes out the quiz, Jacob skims a few of the problems, becomes even more anxious, and feels like he is not able to answer any of the questions.

It is not uncommon for individuals to experience some anxiety in test taking situations. Test anxiety can affect students of any age or grade, including those who are bright or those have spent many years in school. On one hand, low levels of anxiety can positively influence one’s performance on tests (DordiNejad et al., 2011). However, too much anxiety can have negative effects on one’s ability to perform.

Students commonly face testing situations at school. Under federal legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), standardized testing has become more prevalent in the educational curriculum. Studies have shown that at least 60% of students’ final grades are based on test scores (Songlee, Miller, Tincani, Sileo, & Perkins, 2008). Additionally, tests such as the American College Test (ACT) and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) are increasingly promoted and can have a huge impact on students considering a postsecondary education program. Given the weight of tests and exams both before and during college, it is not surprising that testing situations can trigger anxiety for many students. Students may fear receiving a negative evaluation, engage in negative thoughts and self-talk, or become distracted, which prevents them from performing to their best ability (Swanson & Howell, 1996).

It is important to recognize when students experience test anxiety and to intervene as soon as possible. Test anxiety can lead to further anxiety and/or negative behavioral and emotional outcomes (Von Der Embse, Barterian, & Segool, 2013). Students who do poorly on tests as a result of their anxiety may not only receive low scores, but may also experience a decrease in self-confidence and an increase in anxiety over time. For some students, anxiety can cause them to feel alienated from their peers and potentially avoid test-taking situations (Songlee et al., 2008). The good news is that there are many strategies and evidence-based interventions to help students better cope with and overcome test anxiety.

Plan ahead for upcoming tests and exams. Creating a schedule can help the student plan ahead to study smaller, more manageable amounts of information in the time leading up to an exam day. Engaging in a study routine can help the student become more accustomed to the studying and testing process, as well as allow him enough time to learn and understand the test material.

Study efficiently. Studying in a systematic way and practicing the material that will be on a test can help the student feel more prepared and relaxed come test day. It is important to become aware of what study skills the student is using and whether she is truly learning the material. Learning what study strategies work and don’t work will help the student become a more effective and efficient test taker.

Get enough sleep in the days leading up to the exam. Research has indicated that getting plenty of sleep is related to academic performance (Wolfson & Carskadon, 2003). Making sure that the student gets a good amount of sleep for several nights leading up to the exam, instead of staying up late to cram, can help boost her academic performance on test day.

Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to better manage the anxiety before and during the test to help the student stay calm and boost his confidence (Von Der Embse et al., 2013).

Use rewards for completing the test instead of doing well on the test. Thinking about the reward before taking the test can serve as a good motivation strategy. Rewarding the student after taking the test can help start a positive cycle of pride and achievement surrounding the testing process, rather than negative feelings associated with performance (Trembath et al., 2012).

All students learn differently and have different strengths and challenges. For some students, there may be underlying challenges that interfere with their ability to learn, focus, or take tests. For example, students with a learning disability, an anxiety disorder or attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be entitled to additional accommodations and supports with regard to test taking. Accessing these supports, such as extra test taking time or having a test read aloud, is not only fair but can also help reduce some anxiety about the testing process. Other students may need yet additional help from outside mental health professionals. For example, cognitive behavioral and stress management strategies have been found to be effective for treating test anxiety and organizational skills treatment has been found effective in helping students better manage their time and appropriately prepare for tests (Von Der Embse et al., 2013),

Sunfield Center psychologists are available to help children, adolescents, and college students who struggle with organizational skills, test taking and other anxieties. To schedule an appointment, please call us at (734) 222-9277.

DordiNejad, F. G., Hakimi, H., Ashouri, M., Dehghani, M., Zeinali, Z., Daghighi, M. S., et al. (2011). On the relationship between test anxiety and academic performance. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 15, 3774-3778.

Songlee, D., Miller, S. P., Tincani, M., Sileo, N. M., & Perkins, P. G. (2008). Effects of test-taking strategy instruction on high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 23(4), 217-228.

Swanson, S., & Howell, C. (1996). Test anxiety in adolescents with learning disabilities and behavior disorders. Exceptional Children, 62(5), 389-397.

Trembath, D., Germano, C., Johanson, G., & Dissanayake, C. (2012). The experience of anxiety in young adults with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 27(4), 213-224.

Von Der Embse, N., Barterian, J., & Segool, N. (2013). Test anxiety interventions for children and adolescents: A systematic review of treatment studies from 2000-2010. Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 50(1), 57-69.

Wolfson, A. R., & Carskadon, M. A. (2003). Understanding adolescent’s sleep patterns and school performance: a critical appraisal. Sleep medicine reviews, 7(6), 491-506.