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There is a famous scene in the movie Summer School where a group of students is about to take a test. One classmate lets out a blood-curdling scream and says, “Tension breaker. Had to be done.” This likely resonates with any student who has felt nervous about taking an exam.

While a loud scream might distract your peers, there are some easy strategies to maximize your success while minimizing your test-taking anxiety.

Roots of Test Anxiety

According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, more than 85 percent of students have experienced test anxiety, and there may be as many reasons for this as there are academic majors.

Suzi G. is an accomplished student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who earned a transfer scholarship and admission into a prestigious scholars program. She still worries about her ability to perform on tests.

“I often have test anxiety. I used to just shut down, almost ignore the fact that I had a test coming up, hoping to either skim by on what I learned in class without studying or accepting failure,” the soon-to-be graduate student says.

Sarah Kravits, a professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey and author of Keys to Success: Building Analytical, Creative, and Practical Skills, believes that outside pressures are often to blame for the internal discomfort students feel when they prepare for, and take, exams.

She explains, “I think a big part of [test anxiety] is our society’s focus on appearances. [Students] get to a point where they are studying to get a high grade, rather than focusing on real learning.”

So what can you do to keep test anxiety at bay?

Study in Style

One of the first steps is to prepare in a way that benefits you the most. Thorough preparation is the foundation of less stress, worry, and anxiety about how well you’ll do.

“Don’t try to mimic the study habits of others if it’s not your style,” says Derek Moore, a success coach and instructor at Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock, Arkansas. He advises his students, “Know what type of learner [you] are.” He suggests that this can lead you to the methods of studying that will work best for you.

A Little at a Time
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, have found that one proven study strategy is connecting what you’re learning now to what you already know. They also advocate studying in short spurts, spaced out over several days or weeks, rather than cramming everything into one huge study session—likely the night before your exam.

Starting early with smaller bits of information makes studying more manageable for your brain, and allows you to practice retrieving the information rather than just memorizing or storing it. Though you do want to commit what you’ve learned to your long-term memory, that won’t help come test time if you can’t call it up and write it down.

Virginia Nichols, an instructor at the Community College of Denver in Colorado, advises her students to use small periods of downtime as opportunities to study. She explains, “Develop ‘pocket work’ for those ‘dead’ times: waiting for the bus, hairdresser, doctor, etc.”

'Pocket work' ideas

Breaking test prep into small bits helps you in two ways:
  1. It’s easier to commit manageable chunks of information to memory and recall them later.
  2. You can take your studying more easily on the go
For example, create flash cards to review quick concepts and terms, and carry them with you to refer to throughout the day. The act of creating and repeatedly reviewing these small bits of information will make it easier for you to recall the facts.

Many of the Student Health 101 survey respondents noted that memorization, repetition, and flash cards were the methods of studying they employed most.

Cathy D., a senior at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, says, “It’s especially helpful for me to write flash cards in different colors to help me memorize the information.”

Don’t Get Caught Speeding… Through a Test

Even well-prepared students can inadvertently sabotage their good study habits by making simple mistakes during an actual test. To avoid fumbles, follow these suggestions:

  • Arrive at your test location on time or a little early. You don’t want to feel the extra pressure of being late or rushed.
  • Read all instructions slowly and carefully.
  • Follow the directions; don’t ignore them in haste!
  • Respond to questions about the material you know before tackling the more difficult ones.
  • Speak to your instructor before the exam, and during, if you need clarification on something being asked.
  • Give yourself time to review your answers before you submit your work.

“You can’t underestimate the confidence that can come from answering the questions that you really know well,” says Kravits, and reviewing your work allows you to catch any small mistakes before they add up to a big plummet in your grade.

These strategies can also help you feel more confident that you did your best, which may prevent what for many students can become a post-exam rumination cycle.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Almost 60 percent of the Student Health 101 survey respondents indicated that they use deep breathing to help them stay calm during a test. Thirteen percent said they turn to visualization techniques, and together these can help your body stay relaxed.

Sherry H., a junior at Ashford University online, says, “If you can see your success, it’s easier to attain.”

More relaxation techniques to use during exams & presentations

Reducing Test Anxiety

Remember how relieved you feel when you finish a class presentation or exam? That feeling of relief is facilitated by the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). When you start to feel your level of anxiety rising, it’s time to engage your PSNS. The act of calming your thoughts and breathing slowly helps to put it into action.

Try these steps:
  • Take some slow breaths.
  • Use positive and calming self-talk. Tell yourself, “This feeling will pass,” or “I will get through this anxiety.”
  • Visualize a peaceful place, such as a beach or inside your church. Imagine yourself there. What are the sights, sounds, and smells around you?
Focus on the current moment and allow yourself to tune out other stimuli and worries. You might be concerned that this will take time away from what you’re doing, especially if you’re taking an exam. In actuality, it can take only a minute or two to interrupt the cycle of panic and set yourself back on course. If necessary, step away from the situation and find someplace quiet, even if it’s a nearby restroom.

Here’s what you’ll notice as you relax:
  • Your breathing will slow down and you’ll be able to breathe more deeply.
  • Your heart rate will return to normal.
  • Your muscles will become less tense.
Some people find it helpful to carry an item that helps them self-soothe. These are usually small enough to fit in a pocket and in the palm of your hand. It could be a smooth stone, a note from a friend, a soft-corded necklace, or anything else that helps you feel calm and peaceful.

If you find that test anxiety is impeding your ability to study effectively or remember material on the spot, consider talking with an expert. “Test anxiety is real, and it’s not something to be embarrassed about,” says Suzi. “If your anxiety begins to feel debilitating, talk to [a counselor or therapist]. They often have strategies for reducing anxiety, which may help either before or during the test.”

And lastly, don’t underestimate the value of getting a good night’s sleep before an exam. While cramming before a test may seem helpful, if you’re drowsy and drained the next day, you won’t be able to perform come test time.

Sleep actually helps build cognitive ability and solidify memory, so it’s necessary for being sharp on test day.

Kravits tells her students that it’s small habits that build the confidence you need to stay calm during a test. She explains, “If you are doing all of the basic elements of being a committed student—attending and staying focused in class, doing [your] reading on time, keeping up with assignments—you are laying a crucial foundation for test success.”

Take Action!

  • Review course information well before a test is scheduled.
  • Study in short intervals over a longer period of time, rather than trying to cram right before a test.
  • Practice retrieving information when you study and not just storing it.
  • Get a good night’s sleep before an exam.
  • Read all test instructions carefully, and answer the easiest questions first.
  • Use stress-reduction techniques to stay calm before and during a test.
  • Talk to someone you trust if your anxiety is unmanageable.

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Amy Baldwin, EdD, is the director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas. She is the author of The Community College Experience, The First-Generation College Experience, and The College Experience, all published by Pearson.