A very common complaint we hear from students is “test anxiety.” In other words, students get nervous during tests. Sometimes they panic. Test anxiety is certainly unpleasant and often unhelpful, but it’s a topic that is often oversimplified and widely misunderstood. Let’s take a deeper look.
Students get nervous during tests for many reasons. Sometimes they’re under a lot of pressure from parents to do well. Sometimes they’re putting themselves under a lot of pressure. Test anxiety can also be driven by perfectionism or fear of failure – two things that often go hand-in-hand. Nervousness is often amplified by high-stakes exams, such as finals, AP tests, or the SAT. Test anxiety is also exacerbated by poor diet, lack of sleep, and lack of regular exercise. Furthermore, some students suffer from general anxiety and find that tests only make it worse.
But the #1 reason students experience test anxiety has nothing to do with those factors.
Most of the time that students feel nervous during tests, it’s because they’re surprised to find themselves unprepared. They studied, but they still don’t know the material, so they know they’re doing poorly on the exam. The worst cases of test anxiety are when a student has tried very hard to prepare and walks into the exam thinking he’s ready, but discovers that either the study methods he used were ineffective or that the exam is much more difficult than he anticipated.
On the other hand, the least-prepared students are sometimes the calmest during an exam, precisely because they’re not surprised by the fact that they don’t know the material. However, all other things being equal, students who are well prepared will usually feel much less “test anxiety” than students who are unprepared.
Most students do make an effort to prepare, but the problem is that most students don’t know what “prepared” really means. Does it mean having a basic understanding of the biggest ideas from the unit? Or does it mean having a deep, nuanced understanding of how all of the little ideas are connected to the bigger concepts? Does it mean that you know the content that was taught in class, the content that was in the reading, or both? Does the teacher expect you to incorporate the knowledge from this unit into the bigger picture, integrating new ideas with old ones? While it is a good idea to ask the teacher for clarification about what’s expected, the safest bet is to be overprepared, and to remember that it’s easier to feel ready than to actually be ready.
Unfortunately, even if students completely understand what it means to be prepared for exams, they might engage in ineffective studying.
“Studying,” it turns out, is a vague term that encompasses a wide variety of activities, some of which are very helpful and some of which are almost completely useless. The most common study methods are re-reading the chapter, looking over your notes, and answering chapter review questions in your head. The research is absolutely clear: these methods are terribly ineffective.1 It is far better to paraphrase and summarize the material in your own words, repeatedly test yourself on the content, teach the material to someone else, and hand-write everything.1
Studying should be challenging and it should involve putting pencil to paper in order to produce a physical product.
Furthermore, for subjects like math, science, and foreign languages, it is very common for students to confuse “understanding” with “mastery.” These are subjects in which practice is fundamental to success. Most students do very little with the material once they “get it,” but getting it is only the beginning. To reach a point where we can do problems quickly and with few errors, we have to work towards mastery, and the only way to do that is by practicing.
This principle applies to situations other than exams.
For example, it’s common to feel anxious about a job interview. However, the more qualified you are for the job and the more you’ve prepped for the interview, the more confident you’ll feel. Furthermore, how you’ve prepped for the interview matters a great deal. Just reading about the company and thinking about how you’ll answer the questions is enormously less effective than taking notes on what you learn about the company, preparing questions to ask the interviewer based on that research, writing out your answers to anticipated interview questions, and practicing answering them aloud with a friend who plays the role of the interviewer.
Likewise, most people feel nervous about public speaking, but it’s also true that most people don’t prepare enough for their presentations. This is not a coincidence. Most people are unaware that the most popular TED Talks are practiced hundreds of times.2 Are the speakers still nervous? Probably, but they’re surely a lot less nervous than they would be without all that preparation. Again “preparing” is not enough. We have to prepare effectively. This means writing out your entire speech, editing it, having someone else edit it, and repeatedly giving the speech in front of an audience in order to get feedback.
Looking even more deeply at test anxiety, we find something that’s often ignored: the benefits of nervousness.
We’re actually wired to do better under pressure. The experience of nervousness is there to encourage us to focus on the task at hand and try our hardest.3 The stress we feel when we’re experiencing a difficult situation is simply the way our bodies and minds rise to the occasion.3 The stress-response exists to help us handle challenges. It energizes us and focuses our attention. For a well-prepared student, a small amount of test anxiety is actually helpful.
On the other hand, if a student is unprepared, he might feel incapable of handling the challenge, resulting in an unhelpful level of test anxiety.
Getting overwhelmed by a difficult situation triggers a disastrous feedback loop. We are aware that we’re not doing well on the exam, so we panic, and then we do even worse because we’re panicking. Although this downward spiral that can be mitigated by deep breathing, positive thinking, and confident body language, the real prescription is prevention. Despite what we often hear, you can’t fake genuine confidence. True confidence is self-efficacy – the belief, based in reality, that you really can handle the challenge you’re facing. The best way to avoid being overwhelmed by a test is to study for it. It’s rare for a well-prepared student to become overwhelmed by anxiety during an exam. It happens, and when it does happen it might be a sign of a deeper issue, but it’s rare.
When a student reports that they’re experiencing test anxiety, it sometimes indicates that there’s a deeper problem, such as sub-optimal brain health, a fixed mindset, not giving oneself permission to be human, or even a serious psychological issue, and these are important things to address. Just keep in mind that the experience of test anxiety is very common and that the cause is usually very straightforward: insufficient preparation resulting from ineffective study methods.
That’s precisely why Northwest Educational Services focuses on learning how to learn. The content is not as important as figuring out how to master the content. It is the skill of skills: the thing that allows you to learn anything.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
2 Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014.
3 McGonigal, Kelly. “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” TEDGlobal 2013.
Orchard, Samuel. “Mid-term Exams.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Image cropped, words added.