Introduction and symptoms | General strategies | Thought processes | Reducing the anxiety | In summary
It's easy to confuse lack of preparation causing difficulty with real test anxiety. The most common sign of test anxiety is freezing up during the test... when you know the answer but can't get it out. Maybe the words suddenly stop making sense, even though you know the topic inside-out. Maybe you know that you know the answer, but just can't remember it. Or maybe you're having problems learning anything in preparation for the test.
This page deals with pre-test anxiety. The next page deals with anxiety experienced during a test.
Symptoms of pre-test anxiety generally fall into 4 categories. You may experience only one of these, or many; some people are never affected physically but feel like an emotional wreck, while others find behavioral issues are a problem.
- Headaches, difficulty sleeping, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, extreme body temperature changes, nausea or diarrhea, rapid heart beat, and/or dry mouth.
- Anger, disappointment, depression, excessive crying or laughing, feelings of fear, feelings of helplessness.
- Fidgeting, pacing, avoidance, substance abuse (whether that's caffeine, alcohol, or OTC/prescribed/illegal drugs).
- Difficulty concentrating, feelings of dread, comparing yourself to others, difficulty organizing your thoughts, racing thoughts.
If you recognize some of these signs, these general strategies may help.
- Give yourself adequate preparation time.
- Avoid "cramming".
- Try to create questions as you read.
- Always pay attention if your instructor says key words like:
- "This is important"
- "This will be on the test"
- or writes something on the board.
- If you don't have time to cover all the topics, concentrate on the most important areas.
If you don't understand the basic theories, for instance, it won't help you to revise their advanced applications.
Our thoughts create a large part of our stress and anxiety. They just keep running round and around in your head, getting worse each time.
Sometimes the thoughts are obvious - like "There's too much to learn, so I'm going to fail!"
There are some test preparation ideas and time management suggestions which can help, and we're sure you know to relax and give yourself a break sometimes.
Sometimes, though, the thoughts aren't quite so easily resolved.
Do any of these sound familiar?
- If I don't get a good grade, I'm going to fail this class.
- I keep myself to high standards (or my family/friends expect me to do well).
- I'm the only person in this class who doesn't understand this section.
- I've always done well before; anything lower than [an A, a B] is unacceptable.
- I've been ill/had personal problems, and I'm falling behind... I'll never catch up.
- I'm not used to handwriting papers. I'll never manage without a spellcheck.
Reducing the anxiety
Look at the list above. Note the ones which are familiar to you, and let's think about them. How true are they?
|If I don't get a good grade, I'm going to fail this class.
||The class is based on more than just one test, even if it is the final. It's unlikely that one bad test will cause you to fail, but if you're worried, speak to your instructor in advance. He or she might be able to offer some suggestions. You might be able to do an extra credit assignment. You might be able to repeat the class if necessary.
|I keep myself to high standards (or my family/friends expect me to do well).
||Motivation is good, but you can't always work to other people's expectations. You know yourself best - make realistic goals for yourself, based on what you know you can do. Everyone will have a bad day, or a class that seems impossible.
|I'm the only person in this class who doesn't understand this section.
||This is unlikely. The chance of you being the only one is very small indeed. But if you know that someone seems to understand it much more, have you thought of asking for help? Most people are thrilled to be able to help someone else.
|I've always done well before; anything lower than [an A, a B] is unacceptable.
||Despite our best intentions, it is not always possible to get the grade we want. Sometimes a class is much harder, sometimes you have trouble keeping up, sometimes you just have problems remembering the information. Try not to stress yourself too much. Make realistic goals.
|I've been ill/had personal problems, and I'm falling behind... I'll never catch up.
||If you've had medical or personal problems, speak to your advisor or your instructor as soon as you can. They will work with you to find a way for you to cope.
|I'm not used to handwriting papers. I'll never manage without a spellcheck.
||This one is hard! Spelling is something you can't improve overnight, but many spellcheck corrections were actually typos. Start keeping track of actual errors you make, even when emailing, and try to correct yourself.
If you're worried about the actual writing, start making notes by hand. Write some practice papers... longhand. Practice makes perfect!
Try to remember the true thoughts, not the worrying stress-inducing ones.
Whenever one of these anxious thoughts crosses your mind, try to remind yourself that there are alternatives. A bad grade, or a lower grade than you wanted, is not going to ruin your life forever. Courses can be repeated. Missing coursework or tests can be made up.
If you're still worried, or just want to speak to someone in confidence, UAB offers a free counseling service for all students.