Test taking anxiety is the fear or anxiety of taking exams, preparing for tests and being in a situation where you are being tested. You can have test anxiety for school exams, getting a job or for obtaining your driver’s license.
Almost everyone experiences some anxiety before being tested for something. However, like any other phobia, fear or anxiety, there are different degrees of test anxiety in different people.
And, a little exam stress for one person may be motivating and stimulating, helping them to perform better. That’s positive stress or eustress.
On the other hand, another person can find test stress to be debilitating and overwhelming. That’s distress, or negative stress.
Thus the very same situation, same assignments, same room for the exam and the same teacher—can all affect two different people in two very different ways.
Does Exam Anxiety Affect Performance?
While you may think that test taking anxiety is just uncomfortable for you, in truth it can be much more serious.
Numerous studies have found that people who exhibit a lot of anxiety before a test or exam, do not perform as well as people who are confident and relaxed. Even on a test like an IQ test.
And, in addition, suggestions made prior to an exam influence the results of an exam. The suggestions can be made by someone else or they can be part of your self-talk. You can actually talk yourself into achieving or into failing an exam!
For example, people told that they were not expected to finish a test because the problems were very difficult and harder than usual—did not finish it.
But, in the same study, another group was told that the very same test was easy for people of average intelligence (and that they should finish easily if they had average intelligence).
In this group, people with low anxiety finished easily, and those with high anxiety (who were concerned about their “low” intelligence) performed significantly lower than the relaxed people.
How Do You Know that You Have Test Taking Anxiety?
Most people know that they are stressed by taking tests, but, just in case you’re not sure that you are experiencing test taking anxiety, here are some of the symptoms:
- Fast heart rate and rapid pulse – Your heart speeds up at the mention of an exam, when you are trying to study for an exam, and when you are taking the exam…
- Sweaty palms – Your autonomic nervous system kicks in and you start to sweat.
- Trembling – Some people actually experience physical trembling (or trembling inside) when they think of an upcoming exam.
- Inability to concentrate – A feeling of being overwhelmed takes over, and you find it very difficult to concentrate, follow directions or focus on a question or problem. It becomes almost impossible to discipline yourself to study.
- Difficulty organizing or making plans – You know you need to get organized, but you have trouble doing it…
- Thoughts of failure – Instead of feeling put to the challenge, you harbor thoughts of failing, of forgetting what you have learned, and of being a loser. You know that you’ll fail this exam, flunk out of school, you’ll never get a good job and you can’t possibly be a success.
- Competition – You mentally assess the situation, and you know that everyone else is going to do better than you…
- Sleeplessness – You lie awake at night, thinking negative thoughts about the test or exam. And you can’t make the thoughts go away—and you can’t get to sleep.
- Abdominal pains – You must be getting the flu. Maybe you should try to get out of taking the exam…
- Nausea – Some people get so worked up that they actually vomit.
- Muscle tension – especially in the neck or shoulders
Test taking anxiety is not just a nuisance. It can actually affect your performance in school, your performance at a job interview, your performance at a driving test and your future earnings and success
College test anxiety is quite common, and, if you are one of the many that find exam stress a problem, you need to find ways to relax, organize your studying and take your college exams in a relaxed manner.
What are the Causes of Test Anxiety?
The good news is that test anxiety is a learned behavior—and it can easily be unlearned though self-hypnosis or by practicing thought stopping exercises.
You can develop an anxiety problem after a bad experience, like the loss of a job. For adults, being without an income, with bills to pay and a family to support, can cause pressure and stress that affect test taking and even job interviews.
Test anxiety can start at any time in your life. I remember a couple of students in my high school class who had test anxiety whenever we had an exam, or even a pop quiz. They were bright students, but they came close to falling apart whenever we had a test.
Test anxiety in children can be caused by pressure from parents and teachers, to do well. Adults see potential in a child and they pressure him to do well. Or, in some cases, a child puts pressure on himself for achieving high grades at school.
But, by the time most students get to college, they have learned to create stress and test anxiety for themselves.
College Student Test Anxiety
Here are some of the causes of test anxiety for college students:
- Experience – When a student has had a bad experience she can recall the feelings associated with the bad experience. It could be a low test score, a failing grade for a course, a teacher who embarrassed her, or losing a competition. Sometimes a student will replay, over and over in her mind, the disappointment and feelings.
- Lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem – Some students convince themselves that they are not as qualified as other students. They think that they have not prepared as well as others. Or that they won’t be able to answer questions or solve problems on the test. Negative self-talk plays a large part in this case.
- Pressure from others – While we assume that college students are independent and think on their own, they are still influenced by what others think of them. In many cases, this is a parent or parents, but the pressure could come from a significant other as well, or even a roommate.
- Pressure from oneself – Bright, intelligent students are often self-motivated, and they put pressure on themselves to succeed. In addition, many students pressure themselves to perform as well as an older, successful brother or sister.
- Negative thinking – Some students work overtime thinking negative thoughts about themselves. Students may use negative self-talk to convince themselves that a bad experience is bound to happen again… Things like:
- I haven’t studied enough this semester.
- I’ll never be prepared for the exam in time.
- Everyone else is smarter than me.
- The professor is harder on me than anyone else.
- I will fail the exam.
- I will fail the course.
- Everyone will know that I am a loser.
- I’ll never get a job.
- I’ll sleep too late and miss the exam.
And the list goes on…
- Linking personal worth to grades – Just as many adults link personal worth to their jobs, many students feel that they must succeed in college to be worthy. The pressure to succeed causes college stress and test anxiety.
- Lack of control – When a student feels panicked about upcoming exams, he can feel out of control. Feeling out of control is another of the causes of test anxiety–and it just adds more stress to a student’s test anxiety.
- Time pressure – Some students tend to worry about finishing a timed test on time. Even bright students who know the material, can convince themselves that they won’t finish on time.
Test anxiety in students is not a mental illness and it can be reduced.
And any student, well prepared or not, highly intelligent or not, including students that complete every assignment, read every book or article and study faithfully—can be affected by test taking anxiety!
Some level of stress is healthy and it helps you stay motivated, but, if your stress levels rise to where you are being affected in your ability to do well on tests, it’s time to take action to reduce your college test anxiety!