Experiencing anxiety before and during an exam is a normal part of student life. As your body responds to the stress associated with test taking, you may become slightly more aroused and alert. It is in this way that a little anxiety before and during a test may actually enhance your performance.
As anyone with significant test anxiety knows however, too much anxiety can sabotage your performance. Students with test anxiety often report difficulties with concentration, distractibility, and mental blocks, despite hours of exam preparation. They describe "knowing the material cold" the night before, only to find themselves "frozen" and unable to remember answers or respond during the actual exam.
Bad exam experiences often compound the problem. Once a student "blocks" from anxiety during a test, s/he is likely to approach the next exam with even more anxiety. The presence of greater anxiety and pressure increases the likelihood that disabling test anxiety will recur. Once test anxiety occurs, it can become a vicious cycle, derailing satisfactory academic performance and grades despite the student’s best efforts, ability, and motivation.
Fortunately, test anxiety can be helped, through a combination of improved study habits and test-taking skills, as well as practice with stress/anxiety management and coping strategies.
First, each student needs to assess his/her study skills and exam preparation methods. Although using inappropriate learning and study strategies can actually increase anxiety, effective study skills will provide a great foundation for beating test anxiety.
It sounds obvious, but start with regular class attendance and regular, advance class preparation. Trying to cram in six weeks worth of reading assignments all night before an exam is largely useless. You will end up exhausted, unable to think very clearly, and you probably will not have covered all the material anyway. Use a calendar, planner, or similar method to generally map out study and preparation time in the days/weeks before an exam. Research has shown that students learn best when they have shorter, but more frequent study periods, distributed over a longer period of time. This is called "distributed practice". It is also much easier to find the motivation to study/read course material for an hour than to do so when one feels pressured to sit for three or four hours at a time.
Use available resources. If you don’t understand the material, ask questions. See your instructor during office hours if you are hesitant to ask a question during class. Most instructors will be happy to help if you ask, and demonstrate an interest in your own learning. If it helps you to study with others, form a regular study group to review class notes and reading. There is no better way to study than to have to present material to others.
Good test-taking strategies start the night before the exam. Study if you need to, but don’t stay up all night, and don’t use substances (e.g. coffee, caffeine, alcohol, etc.) to help you manage the stress. Get a good night’s sleep so you can approach the exam well-rested and with a reasonably clear head. Once in the exam, read the exam through before beginning any answers. This will allow you to get a rough idea of how to budget your time, as you get a sense of which items will require the most thought and which will be easiest. Answer easier questions first, and allow more time for harder items. Read every question carefully and try to answer each one. You may not get partial credit if you guess, but you surely will get no credit if you leave an item blank.
Use your time wisely, but use all your time. Don’t rush through a test and leave early just to ease anxiety. Use the time to check your answers or to elaborate on what you have written.
Again, it may sound obvious, but you can’t get credit for what your instructor can’t read. On essay exams, slow down and make sure what you have written is legible!
During the exam, try and manage your anxiety. If you find your mind going blank, close your eyes, and breathe deeply and slowly. Test anxiety sufferers usually have great imaginations, but they imagine all the possible negative consequences of doing poorly on a test. It’s not uncommon for their negative "what-if" thinking to lead them to conclude that they will somehow be a lifelong failure and disappointment, not to mention a college flunk-out, all based on one exam. Managing test anxiety means managing "negative imagination", and channeling one’s thoughts in more positive and realistic directions. Your future in college and in life, and the approval of your family and friends does not depend on any one exam or any one course. Try and substitute more realistic thoughts for the negative ones. Focus on all that you CAN do to earn the grades you want.
Lastly, use good stress management daily, not just before an exam. This means managing your time so that you can accomplish your academic work as well as socialize and have fun, while maintaining health through regular exercise, relaxation, and good nutrition..