Test anxiety can be a debilitating and stressful experience. As a student, you may be feeling frustrated by your inability to calm yourself down and put your test preparation to good use. As a parent, you might be feeling at a loss in your abilities to provide helpful advice. Never fear! Test anxiety is something that you can learn to control.
There are two main goals in overcoming test anxiety: Understanding it, and overcoming it.
What is test anxiety?
Anxiety itself is an abnormal sense of fear, nervousness, or apprehension about performing poorly. The difference is that test anxiety occurs only in a testing situation. It may result in difficulty tapping into skills like concentration, attention, and memory.
Anxiety is not grounded in reality; it’s in the head of the test-taker. At its core, anxiety is all about neuroscience. When you experience fear, cortisol knocks out your working memory, making all of that test preparation difficult to access. Your body is ready to spring into action, not to think. This isn’t really helpful if you aren’t trying to fight crime during the SATs or ACTs.
Author Carol Dweck notes an important step in overcoming anxiety as “learning to fulfill your potential.” If you realize that you can learn from the test, you will actually get smarter from taking it. So not only can you beat the test, you can take that information with you!
You have the power to overcome test anxiety!
There are many methods so choose one or multiple methods. Here are some of the most successful techniques:
- Write It Out: The University of Chicago found that a 10-minute exercise before the exam helped to reduce internal anxieties, and thus, helped students perform better. The students would write about their personal worries, allowing them to “unload” before the actual test.
- Visualization: Visualize positive and relaxing images and experiences. Envision yourself doing well on the test. Tell yourself daily over the next week that you will be relaxed during the test and that you will get the highest score that you have ever gotten. Practice in your mind, keep calm and believe in yourself.
- Get in the Zone: Take some time before your exam to pump yourself up. Maybe you have a song that puts you in a focused mindset. Listen to that song a couple of times before your exam; it will help you gain control of your adrenaline.
- Treat it like a Game: Test or math anxiety is often immediate and strong. So strong in fact, that some students reported feeling physical pain. The thought of being evaluated and assessed in that way can be challenging to work past, but try treating it more like a game than a test! Pretend you’re trying to solve a puzzle better than a sibling or peer (that’s some good incentive to get it right).
- Practice Self-Regulation: Spend some time learning how to soothe yourself and keep yourself calm. Begin practicing weeks before the test so you’ll have plenty of time to try out methods of anxiety reduction. Deep breathing can be very effective. Does it help to think of a happy place? To take a sip of water and a breath every time you begin to feel anxious?
- Simulate the Testing Environment: Some students dislike being surrounded by others in the real test room, so they found it helpful to practice around others. Try taking practice tests in a public space like a library.
- Meditation Techniques: Take a few long deep breaths and borrow serenity. Slow breathing actually helps limbic release, so take a few slow breaths, paying attention to your heart rate and filling your lungs entirely with air before an exhale. Take an object such as a rock, a touchstone, which is not powerful until you yourself make it so. Though you might feel silly, using your breath and using your body’s feedback is a helpful way to gain control over your mind.
How parents can help
As a parent, you can be a positive guiding force in your child’s challenges with test anxiety. In addition to the above suggestions, parents can take steps to be coaches in the process. Students can pull others into their anxiety, which can be harmful to everyone. Coach your student to focus on him or herself rather than engaging with others that are anxious.
If all else fails, there are still options to help you or your child succeed. Consider another option of applying test-optional. This helps reduce the anxiety that your score is all-important.
You aren’t alone!
We are living in the age of anxiety, in which everyone is worried about things like the future, with 31% of Americans suffering from some form of anxiety. In fact, test anxiety is actually fairly common. 61% of high school students reported test anxiety, as it tends to surface in high school years. Test anxiety is increasing in both the US and internationally. Interestingly, girls tend to have more anxiety than boys, leading to the discovery of a significant relation to the gender score gap. This form of anxiety is most prevalent in high-stakes tests and gifted students.
The best and final advice: you have more control over your mind and body than you might think, and you have the power to make positive, helpful choices. Let me know if you try any of these methods, and if they work for you.