Controlling Test Anxiety

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe test anxiety.
  • Gain strategies for controlling anxiety.

Take the true-or-false quiz below (circle T for true or F for false). There are no wrong answers.

Activity: Testing Your Test Anxiety

T F I have a hard time starting to study for a test.
T F When studying for an exam, I feel desperate or lost.
T F When studying for an exam, I often feel bored and tired.
T F I don’t sleep well the night before an exam.
T F My appetite changes the day of the exam. (I’m not hungry and skip meals or I overeat, especially high-sugar items like candy or ice cream.)
T F When taking an exam, I am often confused or suffer mental blocks.
T F When taking an exam, I feel panicky and my palms get sweaty.
T F I’m usually in a bad mood after taking an exam.
T F I usually score lower on exams than on papers, assignments, and projects.
T F After an exam, I can remember things I couldn’t recall during the exam.

If you answered true to any of the statements in the table above, you have suffered some of the symptoms of test anxiety. Most of us have experienced this. It is normal to feel stress before an exam, and in fact, that may be a good thing. Stress motivates you to study and review, Person filling in Scantron test formgenerates adrenaline to help sharpen your focus while taking the exam, and may even help you remember some of the material you need. However, suffering too many stress symptoms or any of them severely will impede your ability to show what you have learned. Test anxiety is a psychological condition in which a person feels distress before, during, or after a test to the point where stress causes poor performance. Anxiety during a test interferes with your ability to recall knowledge from memory as well as your ability to use higher-level thinking skills effectively.

There are steps you should take if you find that stress is getting in your way:

  • Be prepared. A primary cause of test anxiety is not knowing the material. If you take good class and reading notes and review them regularly, this stressor should be greatly reduced if not eliminated, and you should be confident going into your exam.
  • Change bad thoughts into positive affirmations. Your own negative thoughts, such as, “I’ll never pass this exam” or “I can’t figure this out, so I must be really stupid,” may move you into a spiraling stress cycle that in itself causes enough anxiety to block your best efforts. When you feel you are brewing a storm of negative thoughts, stop what you are doing and clear your mind. Sometimes it helps to take a deep breath. Once your mind is clear, repeat a reasonable affirmation to yourself, such as “I know this stuff,” before continuing your work.
  • Visualize success. Picture what it will feel like to get that A. Translate that vision into specific, reasonable goals you can work toward and reward yourself for each goal you complete.
  • Have a plan and follow it. As soon as you know an exam is coming, develop a plan for studying and follow it. Don’t wait to cram for an exam at the last minute.
  • Make sure you eat well and get a good night’s sleep before the exam. Hunger, poor eating habits, energy drinks, and lack of sleep all contribute to test anxiety.
  • Relax. You perform best when you are not stressed, so learn some relaxation exercises you can use during an exam.Empty speech bubbles cut out of decorative paper

Exercise: Talking Back to Negative Talk

You’ve learned how negative thoughts contribute to test anxiety and keep you from doing as well as you can. Take some time to disarm your most frequent offenders. From the following list, select three negative thoughts that you have experienced (or write your own). Then fill in the second and third columns for each statement, as shown in the example.

My negative statement How rational is this thought? Do you have any evidence that it is true? Reasonable reinforcing or affirmation statements you can use to replace it.
Example: I’m drawing a blank. I’ll never get the answer. I must really be stupid. Example: I’ve missed questions on things that I studied and knew before. Example: I studied this and know it. I’ll visualize where it’s written in my notes to help me trigger my memory.

I don’t know anything.



What’s the matter with me?



If I fail this test, I’ll flunk the course.



I should have studied more, so I’ll never make it through.



I just can’t think.



Why did I ever take this course?



I’m going to be the last one done again, so I must really be stupid.



I’m getting really tense again; my hands are shaking so much I can’t even hold the pen.<    

I can’t remember a thing. This always happens to me.



I’ve missed questions on things that I studied and knew before.



I studied this and know it. I’ll visualize where it’s written in my notes to help me trigger my memory.



Key Takeaways

  • Some stress before a test or exam is common and beneficial.
  • Test anxiety is stress that gets in the way of performing effectively.
  • The most common causes of test anxiety are lack of preparation and negative attitudes.
  • The key to combating test anxiety is to try to reduce stressors to a manageable level rather than try to eliminate them totally.


1. How do you usually prepare for your exams?



2. List three things you should do before a test or exam to combat test anxiety.



Test Anxiety Case Study

Read the following case study, and respond to the questions provided.

Monica has a Biology mid-term exam on Thursday. On the night before the exam, Monica has a hard time falling asleep and when she does, she has various nightmares about taking tests. The day of the exam, Moncia decides not to eat anything, as she is afraid it will make her stomach upset. By the time she arrives to class, Moncia is irritable and negative about the exam. The slightest noise seems to bother her.

Monica notices that her palms are sweaty and she is feeling nauseous, even though she hasn’t eaten anything. She has to take the exam in order to pass the class so she begins to take the exam. Although she studied for the exam the previous week and spent the night before cramming, she can’t seem to recall any of the information. Monica is suddenly drawing a complete blank. The ticking of the clock, other students shifting in their chairs is becoming distracting, and Monica’s frustration level is quickly rising. Monica says to herself, “If you can’t pass this exam, you might as well drop the course because you are no good at biology.”

Monica continues with the test, checking the clock constantly as she fears she is going to run out of time because she arrived to class late. Other students are finishing their exams, she is the only student left.

  • What strategies would you suggest for Monica to deal with her test anxiety?


  • What study strategies could she try to help her better prepare for her exams?


  • Can you relate to any of the symptoms that Monica is experiencing? If so, how do you combat test anxiety?