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8 Ways to Prevent Test Anxiety

Let's talk about the frustration of repeat failures and poor performances on standardized tests, especially among students who are otherwise strong test-takers. Why does this happen?

Welcome to the world of test taking anxiety. On an episode of Shameless from 2017, Lip’s professor Professor Youins tells him that life is only about two things: learning and coping. For students with test taking anxiety, these two experiences are often the bookends of your test experience. You study hard, and then you deal with consequences of an insufficient test score.

Inferior performance on a test – such as a low score or failing grade— is not always because of an intellectual problem or poor academic preparation. For many students, testing situations cause feelings of anxiety because the mere possibility of failing feels like a threat.

What are some typical anxiety symptoms?

Some anxiety is normal. It can be helpful to help you stay mentally and physically alert. But when you experience too much anxiety, it can lead to emotional or physical distress on test day. You may be familiar with the symptoms:

  1. emotional worry or dread

  2. catastrophizing (fear of failure)

  3. stress or panic

  4. increased heart rate

  5. restlessness; (i.e. foot tapping; scratching; pencil tapping; constant shifting in seat or discomfort)

  6. excessive sweating

  7. shortness of breath or hyperventilating

  8. headaches

  9. stomach aches

  10. nausea or diarrhea

  11. light-headedness or fainting

  12. dry mouth

As a result of those physical and emotional feelings, many people have cognitive issues, which are issues related to have you absorb knowledge. Some types of cognitive issues are:

  1. difficulty concentrating;

  2. memory function issues: “going blank” or “freezing”

  3. disrupted attention/easily distracted

  4. difficulty with comprehending relatively simple instructions

  5. trouble organizing or recalling relevant information

No matter your competency level, it is clear that highly anxious students have difficulties with both learning and performance. Research shows that students with test anxiety score about 12 percentile points below their “low anxiety” peers.

If you have some combination of the test taking anxiety symptoms listed above, you may be struggling with test taking anxiety. In that case, let’s talk about what you can do to prevent anxiety from affecting you on test day.

10 Ways to Help Prevent Test Taking Anxiety

1. Become more aware of your test anxiety. Don’t associate any negative or positive feeling when you get anxious. Just consider yourself the manager of your brain, with your brain as your employee. Start paying careful attention to when your employee is off task– is it because of one of those symptoms above? 2. Consider your test taking anxiety history and possible need for accommodations. Review your education and test taking history, prior test scores, and test taking techniques. When did/do you experience the test anxiety symptoms in the past? Which test sections your anxiety is the highest-- Is it in Reading Comprehension? Math and Logic? Writing? Do you feel panic through the entire test or just on time-consuming problems? Look deeper– look at the problems within the test sections where you are most nervous. Do you lose attention in multi-step problems?

If your anxiety is so severe that it impairs your cognitive functioning (the performance of the mental processes of perception, learning, memory, understanding, awareness, reasoning, judgment, intuition, and language), or if you have a history of accommodations already, it is important that you consider whether accommodations are necessary on your exam. To help you determine if accommodations are appropriate for you, you can schedule a consult with me here.

3. Increase your competency in high-anxiety sections to increase your belief in your ability that you will be successful. Skill deficits can lead to poor performance simply by virtue of failing to adequately learn the material that is being tested. But deficits can also cause you to become aware that you are not prepared. And that awareness, in turn, can lead to poor performance. To avoid a skill deficit, familiarize yourself with all sections of the test, and complete a full content review of all of your weak subjects. Start studying far in advance of test day and avoid procrastination. For students who test with accommodations, consider that if you need 50% extra time to take your test, then you will also need extra time to study, to transition into study sessions, and to rest and recover.

4. Practice taking the test the same way you would on test day. Often, that means being crammed in a big room with a tiny little bit of space for your paper. These days, it means sitting at a computer in a room with a bunch of other students typing away. Get used to the test time and space environment to get accustomed to the test day characteristics. Being rigid about having plenty of space when you study may cause increased anxiety on test day if you’re required to take a test at a small table. 5. Put parental and partner pressure in check. Parental and partner pressure is associated with greater worry, irrelevant thoughts, and physical anxiety symptoms on test day. Communicate with your parents or partner openly about your anxiety to ensure you test your best. Express your boundaries regarding study time and study space, and ensure that your loved ones understand the demands of your test preparation and are best prepared to support you on your journey.

6. Live a healthy lifestyle, right up until test day. Sleeping, eating well, and getting plenty of exercise is the key to a healthy brain! Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, has said that “engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions“, including the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory.

In a study published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, women performed 20% better on memory tests after running on a treadmill than they did before running, and increased problem-solving abilities by 20 percent. Another study in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory found that people learned vocabulary words 20% faster after intense exercise than after low-intensity activity. So, the message here is clear: commit to a healthy, daily self-care regimen that optimizes your brain so you have the mental clarity you need when studying and testing.

7. Plan out your test-day morning. Be relaxed on test day by preparing the day before. Know how you are getting to the test or what your testing space will look like if you are testing remotely. Plan your breakfast a and test-day snacks ahead of time , and have your materials and test information ready the night before.

8. Learn relaxation and focusing techniques to prevent anxiety and distraction when it hits during the test.

Intentional thinking strategies can refocus and redirect your attention to critical information to avoid anxiety-based mistakes on test day. We’ll be discussing this in our next lesson.

You don’t have to suffer from test anxiety, and you don’t have to fear failure. Keep studying, and be patient with yourself as you become a more self-aware and strategic learner.

If you have test anxiety, you are not alone. Most of the students that I work with struggle with some form of test anxiety, and having anxiety is not an impediment to test success. Managing test anxiety is critical, and the best managers become the best test takers. Contact us today to complete our student registration form and Test Anxiety Diagnostic!


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