For our students, the outcome of months and months of studying and hard work can hinge on one single performance. Therefore, it is not surprising that, for many of them, exams can be very stressful. For some, this goes beyond normal worries and doubts and can cause test anxiety.
Test anxiety is a psychological condition in which students experience severe distress and anxiety when thinking about and/or taking an exam. A little anxiety can improve performance; however, when stress levels are so high that normal functioning is hindered, it becomes a problem. So, what causes test anxiety, and how can it be overcome?
What Causes Test Anxiety?
When we perceive something as a threat, our biological response is an increase of adrenaline (often known as ‘fight or flight’). When students focus on what they stand to lose if it goes wrong, they perceive things as a threat. Doing badly in an exam (they fear) may lead to a worse future, or their parents being disappointed in them.
How Can Students Overcome Test Anxiety?
Giving students a more positive and helpful way of looking at test anxiety is an effective way of reducing it. In one study, one group of students received a standard email the night before their first exam which gave general reminders and encouragement. Another group received a similar email but that also included research showing test anxiety to be beneficial, or at least not hinder exam performance.
The researchers found that those who received the intervention email the night before the exam showed lower levels of test anxiety and performed better in their exam. More importantly, the positive effects of the reframing email were long lasting, as test anxiety was lower and exam performance higher in subsequent exams taken later that year.
Recent research demonstrated a link between high levels of cognitive distortion and high test anxiety, which together led to lower exam results. Cognitive distortions include catastrophising (belief in the worst possible outcome e.g. “I will fail all my exams”), personalising (excessive attribution of failure to self, for instance “I will not pass this exam because I am a failure”) and concentrating too much on negative elements (for example, “I will fail my exam because I could not answer some questions”).
Therefore, to overcome test anxiety, these cognitive distortions need to be overridden with positive and helpful self-talk where students focus on previous exam successes.
Good preparation can lower test anxiety. In one particularly study, researchers found that when students felt underprepared (as they believed their peers had carried out more revision), they experienced higher levels of test anxiety and lower levels of performance.
However, good preparation does not only involve engaging in the necessary revision. Getting a good night’s sleep the night before an exam is also an essential part of the process, because sleep deprivation can activate areas of the brain associated with excessive worry. Furthermore, when students have sufficient sleep, the focus of their thoughts is more positive, which leads to lower levels of test anxiety.
Avoid Other Anxious Students
Just before taking an exam, it is common for students to discuss how anxious they are. However, recent research has shown that emotions are contiguous and simply seeing another student acting anxiously can increase other student’s cortisol levels, making them feel more anxious too. Therefore, before an exam, anxious students should try and avoid interacting with others who are also anxious, and instead engage in conversation with calmer students. This is why it is good to have a team around you.
Take Deep Breaths
Research has shown that if students can feel themselves getting anxious they should focus on taking deep breaths for a few minutes. By slowing their breathing, students can reduce their heart rate, moving the body closer to a state of physiological rest, allowing them to regain more control over their emotions.
Feeling anxious about an upcoming test is natural, and something that all students will experience. However, it is important that students do not let this anxiety hinder their performance. To ensure this, students need to remember that anxiety can improve performance, concentrate on previous positive performances, avoid other anxious students, and ensure that they are well-rested and relaxed.