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Learning Skills

Reducing Test Anxiety

The term "test anxiety" refers to the emotional reactions that some students have to exams. The fear of exams is not an irrational fear -- after all, how you perform on college exams will shape the whole course of your life. But the excessive fear of exams interferes with your ability to be successful in college.

What are the Components of Test Anxiety?

There are three components of test anxiety. The physical component involves the typical bodily reactions to acute anxiety: a knot in the stomach, hands wet and trembling, nausea or "butterflies in the stomach," ache in the shoulders and back of the neck, dry mouth, pounding heart, etc. The emotional component involves fear, panic, or dread -- as one student put it, "I become completely unglued!" The mental or cognitive components of test anxiety involve problems with attention and memory ("My mind jumps from one thing to another"), and worry ("I'm certain to fail").

Technique #1: Loosen Up & Relax.

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

  1. Get comfortable in your chair -- slouch down if that helps.
  2. Tighten, then relax different muscle groups or your body, one group at a time. Start with your feet, then move up your body to your neck and face.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Begin breathing slowly and deeply.
  5. Focus your attention on your breath going in and out.
  6. Each time you breathe out, say "relax" to yourself.
Technique #2: Control Your Anxiety

A second approach to controlling test anxiety focuses on reducing the negative and worrisome thoughts that provoke the anxiety. Students who are anxious about tests tend to think or say things to themselves that are negative, depressing, or irrelevant to the task at hand. Research shows that test anxiety can be reduced if these negative thoughts can be replaced by positive thoughts. In order to do this, you must first become aware of your own thoughts during exams, and then decide to practice more positive thoughts during your next exam. What are your thoughts during your next exam? What are your thoughts and self-statements during important exams?

from Reducing Test Anxiety, Morris Holland - 1980