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Test Anxiety



A worried man rubbing his head and neck. Almost everyone experiences some level of nervousness or tension before tests or other important events in his or her life. The term "test anxiety" refers to the emotional, physical, and cognitive reactions that some students have to exams. The fear of exams is not an irrational fear - after all, how you perform on college exams can shape the course of your academic career.

Some students experience physical symptoms of anxiety before and during exams (an upset stomach, sweaty palms, etc.). Many of these students have trouble recalling information that they actually know and become so nervous about preparing for or taking a test that they have difficulty planning, thinking, concentrating, and relaxing. A little nervousness can actually help motivate us; however, excessive fear of exams is a problem when it interferes with your ability to be successful in college.

This tutorial suggests ways of managing your anxiety, as well as suggestions and tips applicable to anyone who takes exams. This tutorial will help you understand what test anxiety is, when it is a normal reaction, and ways to cope with it.


Goals and Objectives

Upon completion of this tutorial, you will be able to:




Note: All external links in this tutorial will open in a new window or tab.




Instructor's Guide

Activity 1: Are You "Test Anxious?"


Take a survey on Your Level of Test Anxiety to see if you are test anxious. (Opens in a new window or tab.)



Causes of Test Anxiety


Anxious girl. Anxiety is created by expectations or thoughts about what is likely to happen. If you think negative things to yourself about your abilities, you produce a corresponding negative emotional reaction: anxiety. If you believe you are not smart, you don't know the information well enough, or you aren't capable of performing well on exams, then your expectations will be for failure. Negative expectations then create anxiety, and anxiety can disable you from actually doing well. Therefore, if you believe in yourself and your abilities and have positive expectations for how you will perform on the exam, you will be better able to cope with the anxiety (a small amount of anxiety can be helpful for performing well.).

Students may blame poor exam performance on test anxiety. This poor performance may actually be a lack of preparedness for a test (which causes anxiety), rather than classic test anxiety. Be well prepared. If your anxiety is a direct result of lack of preparation, consider anxiety a normal, rational reaction. Lack of preparation is indicated by the following:

However, if you are adequately prepared but still panic, "blank out," and/or overreact, your reaction is not rational. In either case, it is helpful to know how to overcome the effects of test anxiety.


What Can You Do about Test Anxiety?


Student Dialog - What to Do about Test Anxiety?

Brian and Jose in a cafeteria.

Brian: I've got a test next week and I'm scared!

Jose: Why are you scared? Haven't you studied for it?

Brian: Of course I've studied, especially during the last few days. The test is in English, the course I failed last semester. Last night I couldn't even sleep.

Jose: Brian, it sounds like you're scared because you failed the course last semester and so you think you're going to fail it again this semester.

Brian: Yeah, I guess that's it . . .

Jose: A lot of students suffer from test anxiety at some point. I know some things you can do that might help. Would you like to work on them?

Brian with a concerned look on his face. Brian: That'd be great!

Jose: When I get anxious about a test, I try to figure out why I'm worried. For me, feeling like I'm prepared is the key. If I don't feel prepared, then I get worried.

Brian: But I've been studying, and I'm still worried.

Jose: Tell me about how and when you've been studying for this exam.

Brian: Well, I started making study notes a couple of weeks ago. Once I finished compiling them, I started studying . . . probably last week.

Jose: really started studying for your final about 3 weeks in advance?

Brian: Yeah, I guess so. But I did take notes in class and read before class.

Jose: Lack of preparation is one of the main causes of text anxiety. It's not enough to study, you need to develop good study habits, too.

Brian: I see. So you're saying I need a study strategy.

Jose smiling.


Jose: Exactly! And you need to make sure you are managing and organizing your time! Make sure you stick to whatever schedule you create.

Brian: Ok, I'm understanding this now. So my study strategy should include scheduling time for studying. What else should I do to avoid feeling anxious at test time?

Jose: Well, you've got to take care of yourself, too. Sometimes I get so busy, I forget to eat. It's important to eat right, get enough sleep, and take a break for yourself! When I get anxious, I practice some relaxation techniques.

Brian: Really? Like what?

Jose: Like breathing slowly and deeply for a few minutes. This helps me calm down and clear my head.

Brian: That sounds like a good one, Jose. I'll give it a try. One technique I use is to keep "negative" thoughts about the test out of my head. I tell myself I'm going to pass the test and if I don't pass this one, I'll do better next time. Sounds silly I know, but it works for me.

Jose: I like that one, Brian.



Cope with Test Anxiety: Preparation


You can control test anxiety so that your performance on a test reflects your real standing in that course. However, if levels of test anxiety that interfere with your academic success persist, talk to a counselor for some specialized help.

Mental preparation is a primary concern when dealing with test anxiety. Be well prepared for the test.


At the beginning of the semester:

Form a study group where you can review notes, reading assignments, and homework with a few classmates (see the iStudy tutorial on cooperative learning for tips on forming a study group).


During the semester, pay attention to your attitude:

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Several days before the exam:

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The night before the exam:


Activity 2: Quiz on Preparation Before an Exam


Check to see if you remember what you just read by taking the quiz below.


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Cope with Test Anxiety: On Exam Day

Screaming man

The day of the exam:


When you arrive at the location of the exam and begin the exam:

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During the exam:

-Turn the test paper over and close your eyes.

-Change positions to help you relax. Stretch your arms and legs and then relax them again. Tense and relax muscles in several parts of your body, then take several deep breaths with your eyes still closed. Breathe in slowly to the count of seven and exhale to the count of seven. Concentrate on your breathing.

-If possible, do something different for a few seconds. For example: get a drink, sharpen a pencil, eat a snack, ask a question.

-Turn the test paper right side up, and give yourself a positive self pep talk (i.e., "You're sure to do well. You studied hard and remember, you got an A on that final in physics.") This whole procedure should take only about a minute to do. It's well worth the time!

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After the Exam:



Activity 3: Quiz on Strategies for Taking An Exam


Time for another quick review by completing the quiz below.


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Self Care


Salad In addition to developing good study habits and techniques, it's important to remember that good nutrition, exercise, some personal "down time," a reasonable amount of social interaction, and adequate rest are also important parts of any study program, especially before an exam. When people are tired and run down, they become frustrated more easily and experience more anxiety.

Students preparing for tests often neglect basic biological, emotional, and social needs. To do your best, you must attend to these needs. Think of yourself as a total person, not just a test taker. Remember to:




Puppy sleeping


Relaxation techniques are another way you can reduce anxiety. When used with mental and physical preparation, relaxation before and during an exam can aid retention and improve test performance. Here are several techniques for you to try:


Technique 1


Technique 2

It is possible for students to learn how to relax on cue, so that anxiety can be controlled during the exam. Learning how to relax is fairly simple, but if you want to be able to do so during your next exam, you will have to practice it beforehand. Follow these steps:


Technique 3

Another approach focuses on reducing negative and worrisome thoughts that provoke the anxiety. Students who are anxious about tests tend to think things to themselves that are negative or exaggerated. Research shows that test anxiety can be reduced if these negative thoughts can be replaced by constructive thoughts. In order to do this, you must first become aware of your own thoughts, and then replace them with constructive thoughts. For example, replace a thought such as "If I do badly on the test, I'm a failure" with a thought such as "Yes, this is a difficult test. I am going to do the best I can. If I get a low grade, I will do what it takes to perform better next time."






 * Indicates that the original Website is no longer available.


Image Credits

Anxious Man

Anxious Girl

Screaming Man


Sleeping Puppy


Some anxiety over taking tests is very common - it is a normal reaction to a stressful situation. Anxiety becomes a problem when it interferes with your ability to recall information that you really do know and causes you to become so nervous that you have trouble thinking clearly.

There are a number of things you can do to combat test anxiety, including managing your time well and developing good study habits so you are well prepared for each test, quiz, and exam. There are also several relaxation techniques you can practice that can help you cope with stressful, anxiety producing situations. If you feel that your anxiety level is above normal and nothing you try seems to help, be sure to get professional help from your advisor or a counselor - these people are trained to help you with problems that are more than you can manage on your own.


Instructor's Guide


Quizzes and Activities

The following are the assignments embedded in the Test Anxiety tutorial:


Relationship to Other iStudy Tutorials

This tutorial is related to the iStudy tutorials on personal effectiveness, including note-taking, active reading, active listening, and stress management.

Therefore, it is recommended that instructors introduce this tutorial to students in conjunction with other personal effectiveness tutorials.


Suggested In-class Methods of Presentation

Begin by introducing the tutorial and having students complete the test anxiety survey to determine their personal levels of anxiety. Some students might find that they have a very low level of test anxiety, however, strategies described in this tutorial for studying, relaxing, and staying focused will benefit all students, regardless of their anxiety level.

After reviewing the goals and objectives for the tutorial, students should read the information and complete the activities. In-class discussions would give students opportunities to apply the tips and suggestions to their personal situations. Small group discussions also work well for this topic.


Key Points

Instructors may want to emphasize the total recommended study time that students should spend on class work:

On average you should spend 2-3 hours outside of class for every hour in class. This means you would spend 45 hours per week on your classes if you had a 15-credit semester. In addition to class work, you most likely have other demands on your time, such as a part-time job, family responsibilities, extra-curricular activities, and so on. A common cause of test anxiety is not scheduling or making enough time to study.


Common symptoms of lack of preparation include:


There are three areas students should focus on to combat test anxiety:


Other important areas on which to focus are attitude, when and how to study for an exam, and strategies for the day of the exam and taking the exam.



Through observing group and/or individual activities, the instructor may assess student performance. Assessment criteria are as follows (instructors supply the percentage weights):


Assessment Criteria





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The student can identify common mistakes and pitfalls when preparing for an exam.


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The student can determine goals for reducing anxiety and obtaining satisfactory performance on exams.




The student can develop a semester-long test-taking strategy for coping with test anxiety and improving scores.


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The student can determine if their level of anxiety has been reduced by following the plan they created.