Test Anxiety

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify sources of test anxiety and techniques for preventing and controlling it

Just imagine how many tests have you taken in your lifetime:

  • In total, you may have taken an average of 113 standardized tests between kindergarten and twelfth grade, according to the Council of the Great City Schools, which studied students in large urban districts.
  • In the 2014–15 school year, 401 unique tests were administered across subjects in the sixty-six large urban school systems that the council studied.

You may feel as though you’ve already taken enough tests for a lifetime! But, for better or for worse, testing seems to be a fact of life, and it’s certainly a recurring feature of the college experience. So you’ll be in the best position for success if you can learn to take tests in stride and develop good test-taking skills.

As you’ll discover, a big part of doing well on tests is knowing what to expect and gearing up psychologically—that is, learning how to deal with test anxiety.

What Is Test Anxiety?

My fears are like thundering elephants. Then when I get them out and really look at them, I see that they are actually mice with megaphones.

—Bruce Rahtje, author and Biblical scholar

For many test takers, preparing for a test and taking a test causes worry and anxiety. In fact, most students report that they are more stressed by tests and schoolwork than by anything else in their lives, according to the American Test Anxiety Association.[1]

  • Roughly sixteen to twenty percent of students have high test anxiety.
  • Another eighteen percent have moderately high test anxiety.
  • Test anxiety is the most common academic impairment in grade school, high school, and college.

Test anxiety is very real and you may know this firsthand. Almost everyone gets a little nervous before a major exam, in the same way most people get slightly anxious meeting a new potential date or trying an unfamiliar activity. We second-guess whether we’re ready, whether we prepared adequately, or if we should or can postpone this potentially awkward situation. And in most situations, testing included, that reasonable level of nervous anticipation can be a good thing,enhancing your focus and providing you with a bit of bravado to get you through a difficult time.

Test anxiety, however, can cause us to doubt ourselves so severely that we underperform or overcompensate to the point that we do not do well on the exam. Don’t despair; you can still succeed if you suffer from test anxiety. The first step is to understand what test anxiety is, and then to practice some simple strategies to cope with your anxious feelings. Whatever you do, don’t use the label test anxiety to keep you from your dreams of completing your education and pursuing whatever career you have your eyes on. You are bigger than any anxiety.

Indicators of Test Anxiety

Thinking is a key element of anxiety of any sort. However, test anxiety can not only manifest itself in our minds, but other parts of our bodies as well. You may feel queasy or light-headed if you are experiencing test anxiety. Your palms may sweat, or you may become suddenly very hot or very cold for no apparent reason. At its worst, test anxiety can cause people to experience several unpleasant conditions including nausea, diarrhea, and shortness of breath. Some people may feel as though they may throw up, faint, or have a heart attack, none of which would make going into a testing situation a pleasant idea.

Below are some effects of test anxiety:[2]

  • feelings of stress, fear, helplessness, and disappointment
  • negative thoughts
  • headache
  • nausea
  • excessive sweating
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid heartbeat
  • difficulty concentrating
  • thinking negatively
  • comparing yourself to others
  • procrastinating

Understanding Test Anxiety

Test anxiety tends to occur because testing situations create a sense of threat for those who experience test anxiety. The sense of threat then disrupts the learner’s attention and working memory.[3] And when our working memory capacity is decreased, our brains are not able to perform at their highest capacity. Other factors can influence test anxiety, too. For example, gifted students have higher levels of test anxiety when they are in a class of other gifted students than when they are in a class with non-gifted students. Since we often judge ourselves relative to our peers, when our peers are smarter so to speak, there is a greater chance that we do not perform as well as they do, thus “proving” what we fear. In contrast, gifted students do not have the same fears (rightly or wrongly) with respect to non-gifted populations.[4]

Stereotype Threat

As we saw in the previous section, those who experience testing anxiety see testing as a threat. Why might tests be seen as a threat? If a student sees a test not as a measure of what they have learned but of their ability or intelligence, then they might take a low score on the exam to reflect on them and their ability, causing an anxiety-producing situation—it is as though the score on the exam is directly informing you of your self worth. This perception is not how tests should be viewed. Instead, tests should be viewed simply as a test of what you have learned, not a test of your intelligence or ability. An exam score is not an indicator of your self-worth! When put this starkly, the point is obvious. And yet, try as we might, it often feels to many of us as if it were an indication of our self-worth. Research on what has become known as stereotype threat can help elucidate both the dynamics of test anxiety, as well as how to mitigate it.

The psychologist Claude Steele uncovered an interesting phenomenon in the early 1990s. Steel was investigating the achievement gap in African-American students and wanted to know why African-American students often fared worse in college than their White, American counterparts, even when matched for high school grades and test scores. What he found transformed the way we think about testing results.[5] You can listen to Steele talking about his work here.

Steele recognized that societally there exist many negative stereotypes about certain groups. The two that he utilized in his initial research were that African Americans were not as intelligent as White Americans and that women were not as good at math as men. Steele took incoming students (both Black and White) at the University of Michigan and divided them into two groups and gave them an intelligence test. In the first group (control), the students were told that the test was an intelligence test; in the second group (experimental), students were told that the test was NOT an intelligence test but rather a kind of puzzle or game. The control group showed the recognizable pattern where White students scored on average better than Black students, but in the experimental group, Black and White students scored the same! Steele repeated a similar thing with women who were math majors. They were given a very difficult math exam (the math “subject test” of the GRE) and one group was simply given the test (control) and another (experimental) was told that “although gender differences are found on some math tests, on this test women score just as well as men.” That statement given to the experimental group was false (men do score better on the math subject test of the GRE), but in this condition women scored just as high as men did![6]

What is going on here? Steele and other researchers have done further research to understand these results. The emerging picture is something like this. When an individual is a member of a group about which there exists a negative stereotype regarding some trait x, and if x is an important part of that individual’s identity, then a test that is thought (by the individual) to measure that trait will create a certain kind of anxiety in the individual. In particular, the individual will fear confirming the negative stereotype. Importantly, this anxiety can exist even if the individual in question rejects the negative stereotype. The idea is that fear of confirming the stereotype creates extra mental chatter that ties up working memory. The stereotype effect is only elicited when the task is sufficiently difficult since if it is too easy, working memory isn’t overly taxed and the extra working memory that is tied up by the fear of confirming the stereotype doesn’t have an effect on the test score.

Consider Claudia, who is a female math major at her university. She cares about being a good student and in particular about being good at math. And she IS a good math student. She knows about the stereotype that women are not as good at math as men and she rejects that stereotype. Indeed, she performs better in her math class than many of her male counterparts, so she has good reason to reject the stereotype. However, the mere existence of the stereotype hangs over her and when she faces a particularly difficult math exam and a problem she can’t figure out, the stereotype haunts her. She fears confirming that stereotype and that her male colleagues will perform better on the exam. That extra mental chatter creates anxiety about confirming the stereotype (and that doesn’t exist for her male colleagues, since there is no negative stereotype about males being bad at math) provides just enough distraction that it affects her performance. Her anxiety about confirming that stereotype ties up her working memory just enough that it has a measurable effect on her exam performance.

The dynamics in play with the stereotype threat can also play out in the absence of specific stereotypes about groups.  If you care about being smart but fear that you aren’t and that the exam will show it, this fear will create anxiety that, when the exam is sufficiently difficult, can impair your performance on the exam. The irony is palpable: the fear of not doing well can actually make you not do well. Below we will consider some strategies for mitigating test anxiety, including stereotype threat.

Getting help for test anxiety

If you experience test anxiety, connect with the Student Health and Wellness Center on campus and schedule an appointment to meet with a personal counselor. A counselor can help you gain tools to reduce your anxiety and make test taking more manageable.

Strategies for Preventing and Controlling Test Anxiety

The following video, from the University of British Columbia, provides strategies for coping with any stress and anxiety you may have about an upcoming test or exam. It also provides strategies, such as the following, for acing an exam:

  1. Ask about the exam (materials covered, format, points, level of detail, etc.).
  2. Take inventory of your notes.
  3. Set a study schedule.
  4. Keep your diet consistent.
  5. Don’t stop exercising.
  6. Get regular sleep.
  7. Make a five-day study plan for each exam.

You can view the transcript for “Exam Strategies – Study Skills” here (opens in new window).

These strategies all have to do with preparedness, which is under your control. However, even when we prepare, we can still experience anxiety, which feels like it is outside our control. Here are some research-based “lifehacks” that you can employ to help combat test anxiety (and stereotype threat).

  • Just before an exam (and after you’ve done everything you can to prepare!), try to think about other things that you are good at—other parts of your identity. Being a good student (in whatever subject) is only one part of your identity.[7][8]
  • Assuming you have put in the work, remember that your anxiety isn’t about your preparedness for the exam, but rather an effect of anxiety.[9]
  • Practice a growth mindset: even if you do not do as well as you would like, this test is merely an opportunity to learn the material better; it is not a reflection of your ability.[10]
  • Remind yourself of your core values.[11]

Health and wellness cannot be overstated as factors in test anxiety. Studying and preparing for exams can be easier when you take care of your mental and physical health. The following are a few tips for better health, better focus, and better grades:

  1. Try a mini-meditation to reduce stress and improve focus. Breathe in deeply, count to five, and exhale slowly. Watch your lower abdomen expand and deflate. Repeat five times. Learn more about how to proactively manage stress.
  2. Know when to stop. Although some students may stay up until 4:00 a.m. studying, it’s not a healthy habit. Your mind is more efficient when you get enough quality sleep, so make sure to schedule enough time for rest.
  3. Don’t try to be perfect. You’ll alleviate a lot of anxiety by learning that just “doing your best” is something to be proud of—it doesn’t have to be perfect.
  4. Reach out for help. If you feel you need assistance with your mental or physical health, talk to a counselor or visit a doctor.

If you experience test anxiety, have hope! Experiencing test anxiety doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you or that you aren’t capable of performing well in college. In fact, some stress—a manageable amount of stress—can actually be motivating. The trick is to keep stress and anxiety at a level where it can help you do your best rather than getting in your way.

Monica’s biology exam

Monica has a biology midterm 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, Monica decides not to eat anything, as she is afraid it will make her stomach upset. By the time she arrives to class, Monica 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 and other students shifting in their chairs is becoming distracting; 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?

● How do you usually prepare for your exams?

● Thinking about errors you’ve made on exams in the past, what test strategies might you now consider trying?

Be good to yourself and give yourself enough time to study in advance for your quizzes, tests, and exams. The more studying you do ahead of time, the less stressed you’ll feel before the exam. Remember: exams are simply another chance to learn the material. If you have been doing all the other things correctly leading up to the exam, then the exam isn’t such a scary thing. Remember the example of Maria and Thomas from earlier in the module. In addition to actually helping you learn the content, preparing properly (i.e., not cramming) can mitigate test anxiety by giving you confidence going into the exam!

Try It


stereotype threat: a form of test anxiety in which students fear they will confirm a stereotype that predicts poor performance become distracted from this worry, which in turn measurably affects their result

test anxiety: a mental and embodied sense of threat in response to an imminent exam, a reaction that can disrupt the learner’s attention and working memory

  1. "Text Anxiety." American Test Anxieties Association, www.web.archive.org/web/20160303041413/https://amtaa.org/. 25 Apr. 2016.
  2. ”Test Anxiety.” The Learning Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web. 2 Nov. 2021.
  3. Vytal, K.E., B. R. Cornwell, A. M. Letkiewicz, N. E. Arkin, and C. Grillon. "The Complex Interaction between Anxiety and Cognition: Insight from Spatial and Verbal Working Memory." Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 28 Mar. 2013, doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00093.
  4. Goetz, Thomas, Franzis Preckel, Moshe Zeidner, and Esther Schleyer. "Big Fish in Big Ponds: A Multilevel Analysis of Test Anxiety and Achievement in Special Gifted Classes." Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 2008, vol. 21:2, pp. 185–98.
  5. Steele, C. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. W.W. Norton, 2010.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ambady, N., S. K. Paik, J. Steele, A. Owen-Smith, and J. P. Mitchell. "Deflecting Negative Self-Relevant Stereotype Activation: The Effects of Individuation." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2004, vol. 40, pp. 401–408.
  8. Croizet, J., M. Desert, M. Dutrevis, and J. Leyens. "Stereotype Threat, Social Class, Gender, and Academic Under-Achievement: When Our Reputation Catches Up to Us and Takes Over." Social Psychology of Education, 2001, vol. 4, pp. 295–310.
  9. Johns, M., T. Schmader, and A. Martens. "Knowing Is Half the Battle: Teaching Stereotype Threat as a Means of Improving Women’s Math Performance." Psychological Science, 2005, vol. 16, pp. 175–79.
  10. Blackwell, L. S., K. H. Trzesniewski,and C. S.  Dweck. "Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention." Child Development, 2007, vol. 78, pp. 246–63.
  11. Cohen, G. L., J. Garcia, V. Purdie-Vaughns, N. Apfel, and P. Brzustoski. "Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap." Science, 2009, vol. 324, pp. 400-403.