Few things in life strike fear into the hearts of students as much as standardised testing, and it’s pretty easy to understand why. High-stakes tests represent a major crossroads in a student’s progress, where success or failure depends solely on their real-time performance during a short, 30-90 minute window. In real life, rarely are the stakes so high, unless you taking ability tests for recruitment purposes.
In the workplace, your performance is evaluated based on a full calendar year’s worth of effort, not during an hour’s worth of testing. How could years of learning and education be summarised in such a short period of time? And what happens if, due to no fault of your own, you simply are having a bad day and your test scores aren’t representative of your actual performance?
Moreover, this pivotal challenge must be overcome alone and in complete silence, under the unnerving gaze of assessment invigilators and assessors. You can’t move, you can’t speak, and you run the risk of disqualification if you are suspected of anything untoward. Under these circumstances, people often start playing out worst-case scenarios in their minds. What if I suddenly get sick? What if I suddenly need the bathroom? What if my pen leaks all over my paper?
What if…what if…what if…
Although you may find my grim description of formal assessment processes even more anxiety provoking than you already did, my goal isn’t to exasperate your existing test anxiety. Quite the opposite, my goal has been to validate it. Yes, testing is anxiety provoking, and there is nothing wrong with you for feeling that way. Unfortunately, the whole testing process has been inadvertently engineered to maximize test anxiety, and that is not your fault. None of this is your fault. In fact, no one should ever feel guilty for reacting negatively to standardised testing processes, the blame lies with the institutions who have structured their assessment processes that way.
Given these facts and the available academic research on test anxiety, I feel it is my responsibility to share some of the major ways to manage, and eventually, overcome test anxiety for nervous students:
Make a mind-set shift
Research has explored the phenomenon of test anxiety for decades now, and one of the major determiners of who experiences test anxiety is their mind-set. People who suffer from extreme test anxiety often share certain characteristics, in particular, they show low levels of self-esteem, self-confidence, and most importantly, self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to control the world around them, and those who show low levels tend to believe that they are at the mercy of others. When this is combined with low self-esteem and self-confidence, we have an individual who feels vulnerable, inadequate, and unable to champion their own interests. The best example of this is the “Impostor Syndrome”, whereby people who in reality are highly competent and capable doubt their abilities, believing themselves to be imposters.
I am here to tell you that these negative thoughts and destructive thought patterns are 100% false and that the only thing holding you back is your mind-set. Generally speaking, those who are truly incompetent don’t know it, which is a phenomenon also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who are concerned about their level of ability, their performance on tests, or their future direction in life are almost always the competent ones and are thus those who are most likely to perform well on standardised testing, especially after getting test anxiety under control.
Also, as a student, I also very strongly recommend taking advantage of any and all resources available to you. You may need to complete your standardised test alone, but you don’t need to deal with low self-esteem on your own. School councilors, mentors, friends, family, tutors, teachers, professors, and careers guidance staff are all there to help you through this process and can be invaluable resources to help facilitate a needed mindset shift.
Practice, practice, practice (and then practice some more)
Much of the anxiety behind standardised testing stems from the fear of the unknown. The questions, the content, and the topics are all unknown, and when people face the unknown they tend to catastrophize. Therefore, it is imperative that you take advantage of any and all opportunities to practice beforehand. Research shows that mock exams, especially those which are almost identical to the real assessment, can drastically reduce test anxiety on the day itself. The logic behind this is easy to understand. If you know what to expect and you have dealt with this challenge before, the fear of the unknown will subside, and you can just focus on your actual performance.
Similarly, practicing on mock assessments, such as numerical reasoning tests, also reduces the number of silly mistakes and avoidable errors which occur during testing. Having read similar instructions in the past, you reduce the probability of misinterpreting them, ensuring that you stay the course and attempt the exam with perfect focus. You will also be more familiar with the response style, question layout, and exam format, avoiding particularly frustrating errors such as not noticing another page or missing key pieces of information that are required to answer questions. Not having to worry about these issues quite literally reduces the number of things to worry about, and thus minimises the overall amount of test anxiety.
Study smarter and earlier
Even today, students still seem to follow the revision strategy of slack and cram. Procrastination means that students put off studying until the very last minute, and then study intensely for a 1-5 day period, rather than following a slower and steadier pace. The overall disadvantages of this strategy should be obvious, but from a test anxiety perspective the effects are more subtle. Cramming-based revision strategies exasperate anxiety by creating an unnecessary sense of urgency. This sense of time pressure acts as a multiplier for existing stress, compounding the existing feelings of test anxiety, as not only do you have the stress of intense studying, but you have a very limited time to actually do it.
Instead, for the anxious student, I very strongly recommend a slower and earlier approach to studying and to revision. Take time to become familiar with the content, rather than saving it all for the very last moment. This will allow you to avoid unnecessary time-restrictions and to simply take a more casual approach to your learning. Moreover, this approach also ensures that you can identify areas for development early, allowing you plenty of time to take a deep-dive or seek help regarding the specific topics that you are struggling with.
Avoid caffeine around test day
Students tend to have a love-hate relationship with caffeine. On one hand, its effects as a stimulant are both powerful and immediate, helping night-owls to stay focused well into the early hours of the morning. But what goes up must come down, and the inevitable crash always gives people pause for thought when deciding to continue dosing up on caffeine. In a testing context, the ever-present threat of a caffeine crash outweighs any benefit to focus and concentration offered by the compound itself, making it more of a liability than an advantage.
What’s worse, caffeine is well known to exasperate anxiety, making people even more prone to anxiety and even anxiety attacks. This adds further fuel to the fire, introducing an additional level of anxiety that is especially easy to avoid. If you are particularly prone to test anxiety, or even worse, anxiety in general, you should give very serious thought to giving up caffeine altogether, or at the very least, minimising your consumption throughout the day.
Sleep well on test day (as best you can anyway)
Sleep is the universal rejuvenator, representing the time when we as humans are at our most calm and tranquil. Sleep is essential to cognitive performance and behavioural regulation, and sleep deprivation is a literal form of torture. With this in mind, anxious students are making an enormous mistake by staying up late or getting up excessively early around exam day. Research very clearly shows that anxiety is greatly exasperated by sleep deprivation, and can even induce anxiety in those who normally do not experience it, let alone in naturally anxious people.
I therefore strongly recommend getting a good night’s rest in the run-up to your exams, and especially on the night before. Unfortunately, that is often easier said than done, and test anxiety is well known to keep students awake at night. Utilising non-pharmacological sleep aids can be a helpful way to improve sleep quality and maximise the chances of a restful night. For example, wearing a sleep mask, avoiding too much liquid before bed, no screen time before bed, and using a comfortable pillow are all great strategies to maximise sleep hygiene, and hopefully, minimise test anxiety.
Test anxiety is a particularly cruel and frustrating issue to deal with, as it occurs right when we need to perform at our best. However, you do not need to suffer in silence, and you certainly don’t need to accept test anxiety as an inevitability. You have a wide range of tools at your disposal, each offering a unique and effective method of anxiety reduction, even to the point of total elimination. There are some personality tests, such as the enneagram test, that can help you determine your overall personality type, and Whatever approach you take to reduce your anxiety, the simple act of taking control of the situation and trying to mitigate the problem represents a major mind-set shift. No longer will you feel like a helpless victim, but instead you will exercise your personal agency and exert control of the situation, which means the battle is already half won.