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Dealing with Test Anxiety in College Classes

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Test anxiety is common among college students. Anxiety can be reduced through thorough preparation. Even small amounts of work can restore a feeling of control. Procrastination feeds anxiety and worry.

Some nervousness or apprehension surrounding exams is normal and can be a powerful motivator. However, for some students, test-related anxiety is so extreme that it leads to poor performance and interferes with learning.

Test anxiety can develop for a number of reasons – a prior bad experience with test taking, lack of preparation, lack of confidence, fear of failure, and performance anxiety to name a few. Often times, worrying about how anxiety will affect you can be as debilitating as the actual anxiety. Anxiety can build as an exam approaches and can interfere with the student’s ability to prepare sufficiently. Poor preparation can contribute to test anxiety. Inefficient time management, poor study habits, and lack of organization can contribute as well. Student’s who cram at the last minute will feel less confident than those who have thoroughly studied. Lack of confidence is a contributing factor to test anxiety. While the pressure of doing well can be a great motivator, it can become irrational if taken to extremes. Fear of failure and perfection can add additional pressures.

Anxiety is a natural human response to a threatening situation. The primary “threat” in a testing situation is the possibility of failure. If you suffer from test anxiety, you are not alone. Approximately 20% of US college students experience symptoms of test anxiety. Test anxiety typically occurs in the presence of a difficult, challenging, or threatening situation, when you believe that you are inadequate, and/or when you fear the consequences of possible failure.

To perform well in a challenging situation, you must be psychologically and physically alert. This level of “alertness” is also known as arousal. Increasing arousal is the basis of “psyching up”. In many instances, psyching up can enhance performance. It becomes a problem when the intensity gets too high and we begin to feel nervous, tense, and anxious. This can become a distraction and cause performance to decline.

If you suffer from test anxiety, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Physical – headaches, nausea or diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness or breath, light-headedness or fainting, rapid heart beat, and/or dry mouth.
  • Emotional – extreme feelings of fear, disappointment, anger, depression, uncontrollable crying or laughing, feelings of helplessness
  • Behavioral – fidgeting, pacing, substance abuse, avoidance
  • Cognitive – racing thoughts, ‘going blank’, difficulty concentrating, negative self-talk, feelings of dread, comparing yourself to others, difficulty organizing your thoughts.

Fortunately, there are several things that can be done to make test anxiety more manageable:

  • Be prepared – develop good study habits, spread studying over several days – don’t cram; ask for additional help if needed; eat well, get adequate rest, and exercise to build energy before the test; attend class regularly and complete all assignments in a timely manner; make and take practice tests
  • Keep a positive attitude – have reasonable expectations; do not allow your grades to be dependent on one exam; avoid negative and irrational thoughts; set up a system of rewards; encourage yourself
  • Use relaxation techniques – try deep breathing exercises, imagery and visualization, or muscle relaxation techniques to help increase focus and concentration
  • Learn good test-taking skills – answer questions you know first and then go back to harder ones; read questions and directions carefully before you begin; outline essays before you begin to write; keep short-answers short

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