Mastering Exam Anxiety

by Ken Dickson

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1. What is exam anxiety

Exam anxiety is

  • excessive worry about upcoming exams.
  • fear of being evaluated.
  • apprehension about the consequences.
  • experienced by many normal students.
  • not mysterious or difficult to understand.
  • manageable by following a plan of helpful suggestions.

There are four main areas which can contribute to your exam anxiety:

  • lifestyle issues,
  • information needs,
  • studying styles,
  • psychological Factors .

Lifestyle issues that can contribute to exam anxiety are

  • inadequate rest,
  • poor nutrition,
  • too many stimulants,
  • insufficient exercise,
  • not scheduling available time,
  • not prioritizing commitments.

Information needs that can contribute to exam anxiety are

  • exam-taking strategies,
  • academic information such as course requirements, teachers' expectations, exam dates and testing location,
  • knowledge of how to apply anxiety reduction techniques
    • while studying
    • before an exam
    • during an exam
  • studying styles that are
    • Inefficient
      • inconsistent content coverage
      • trying to memorize the textbook
      • binge studying
      • distance environment
      • all-night studying before exams
    • Ineffective
      • reading without understanding
      • can't recall the material
      • not making review notes
      • not reviewing
      • not studying

Psychological Factors

  • feeling no control over the exam situation (rather than knowing and applying exam strategies),
  • negative thinking and self-criticism (rather than being one's own best friend),
  • irrational thinking about exams and outcomes,
    • Irrational beliefs "If I don't pass my (parents/partner/boss) will kill me!"
    • Irrational demands "I have to get 100% or I am worthless."
    • Catastrophic predictions "I'll fail no matter what I do."

2. Do I have exam anxiety

Many students experience some pre-exam jitters. Mild nervousness can motivate you to do your best. However, exam anxiety is different from typical nervousness:

  • It is more intense.
  • It is more potentially overwhelming.
  • It is more disruptive and disturbing.
  • It is not helpful or motivating.

How can exam anxiety affect me?

  • disturb my studying and exam preparation
  • paralyze my decision-making
  • make my mind go blank on an exam
  • undermine my academic confidence
  • prevent me from showing how much I know

Exam anxiety affects different students in different ways:

  • Physical symptoms
    • tight muscles
    • headache
    • insomnia
    • upset stomach
    • appetite changes
      • unable to eat
      • constant snacking
      • binge eating
    • shortness of breath
    • increased perspiration
    • sweaty palms
    • increased heart rate
    • dry mouth
    • diarrhea
    • more frequent urination
  • Behavioural changes
    • tense movements
    • losing focus of actions
    • less coordinated movements
    • fidgeting, nail biting
    • moving or walking faster than normal
    • increased smoking, drinking, and/or eating
    • "escaping" behaviours, e.g. partying the night before an exam
  • Emotionally
    • atypical mood swings
    • emotions related to the examination, presentation or paper
      • worry
      • frustration
      • fear
      • anger
      • discouragement
      • depression
      • panic
      • hopelessness
  • Cognitively
    • scattered attention
    • irrational thoughts
    • difficulty concentrating
    • negative, self-defeating thoughts
    • task-disruptive daydreaming
    • self-abusing thoughts
  • Socially
    • social withdrawal
    • avoidance of friends and family
    • unusual irritability with others
    • procrastination through increased socializing

How might exam anxiety affect my studying?

  • disorganized time management
  • poor study habits
  • procrastination on papers, presentations and studying
  • obsession with fearful thoughts about the consequences of failing
  • unable to concentrate on reading and understanding study material

How might exam anxiety affect my exams?

  • can't focus or organize thoughts
  • poor recall of important concepts, keywords, acronyms
  • can't understand exam questions
  • going blank on familiar questions
  • poor scores on known material
  • correct recall after the exam

3. How do I reduce exam anxiety

We have identified eight steps to reducing exam anxiety

  1. Effective studying
  2. Healthy lifestyle
  3. Accurate information
  4. Exam-taking preparation
  5. Attitude upgrading
  6. Rational (instead of irrational) thinking
  7. Test-taking strategies
  8. Anxiety reduction techniques

1. Effective studying

  • Don't cram the night before the exam: (too much material) + (too little time) = ANXIETY
  • Plan your studying
    • with regularly scheduled study sessions about 50 minutes long separated by 5-10 minute breaks.

2. Healthy lifestyle

  • Anxiety increases when one feels run down and overwhelmed.
  • Overall resilience depends on one's physical and mental health, which can be strengthened by:
    • enough movement and exercise
    • balanced life (vs. over-stress)
    • positive thoughts/beliefs (vs. self-defeating thoughts/cynicism)
    • movement and exercise (vs. couch potato lifestyle)
    • health focus (vs. self-neglect)
    • replenishing nutrition (vs. junk food)
    • regular sleeps (vs. late night lifestyle)

3. Accurate information

  • Check the course materials package when it arrives to make sure all books, guides, etc. are included.
  • Read the course outline.
  • Look at the Study Schedule for suggested timelines for completing the course.
  • Understand the instructor's grading procedure and if you don't understand, ASK!
  • Well before the exam, make sure you know
    • where will the exam be held,
    • what time does it start,
    • how long will it last,
    • will extra time be allowed.
  • Ask the tutor/instructor
    • is it an open-book exam or not?
    • when will the marks be available?
    • what materials can/should be brought to the exam?
      • Calculators (graphing or not)
      • Geometry sets
      • Textbooks, dictionaries, etc.
      • Notes
      • Tape recorder
      • Other

4. Exam-taking preparation

  • Practice on sample tests in the textbook or study guide.
  • Ask for suggestions from your tutor/instructor:
    • What to expect on the exam.
    • What course materials should be emphasized.
    • How to prioritize study time for this course.
  • Do
    • Plan to rest well the night before the exam
    • Plan to arrive at the test location early to pick the seat of your choice; away from doors, windows and other distractions.
    • Plan to monitor the time during the exam so wear a watch or sit where you can see the clock.
  • Avoid
    • Drinking coffee the night before the exam
    • Drinking coffee during the day of the exam
    • Anxious or talkative students
    • Other people or things that may disturb your self-confidence, focus and relaxation
  • Plan
    • Check out the testing room before the day of the exam
      • Where is it located?
      • How much time does it take to get there?
      • Where do you want to sit?
      • Is there a clock?
      • What is the room temperature?
  • Control
    • Wear layers of clothing so you can adjust your need for more warmth or coolness

5. Attitude upgrading

  • Plan to reward yourself for your hard work
  • After the exam do something you enjoy that makes you feel special:
    • take a relaxing walk.
    • have coffee with a friend.
    • Buy yourself a present.
    • Exercise.
    • have dinner at a favorite restaurant.
    • take a luxury bath with music, candles and a favorite book.

6. Rational (instead of irrational) thinking

  • Exam anxiety has two key parts:
    • Thoughts
      • Negative
      • Irrational
      • Intrusive
      • Persistent
    • Feelings
      • Fearful (of evaluation situations)
      • Apprehensive (of negative outcomes)
      • Tense (muscles readying for self-protection)
      • Autonomic arousal (stress response)
  • Exam-anxious thoughts and feelings are:
    • A closed loop
    • Mutually influencing and strengthening
  • Reduce exam anxiety by INTERRUPTING
    • thought negativity
    • thought irrationality
    • thought intrusiveness
    • thought repetition
    • feeling tense
    • feeling fearful
    • feeling apprehensive
    • feeling distressed
  • Section 8: Anxiety Reduction Techniques will help you reduce these exam-anxious feelings.
  • Negative thoughts arise from negative beliefs in your ability to be successful
  • This is a habit of thinking; a self-defeating habit
  • Beliefs and their thoughts are not reality
  • You can actively change your negative thoughts to positive ones
  • Interrupt negative thoughts with THOUGHT REPLACEMENT
    • Plan to replace negative thoughts with positive ones
    • Practice THOUGHT REPLACEMENT frequently to build new thought habits and new beliefs about yourself
      • While studying
      • Before, during and after the exam
      • Anytime you notice negative, self-defeating thoughts.
    • Interrupt negative thinking with THOUGHT REPLACEMENT:
      • Examples
        • I can do this!
        • I will do my best!
        • I can pass this test!
        • I will focus only on the question in front of me.
  • Irrational thoughts arise from
    • Linking one's self-worth to the test outcome
    • Catastrophicising the consequences of anticipated failure
    • Repeating and strengthening the irrational belief before, during and after the exam.
  • Some Irrational themes
    • Rigid insistence "I must pass this exam or my life won't be worth living."
    • Faulty logic "If I fail this exam then I am a failure as a person."
    • Perfectionism "If I make a mistake on this exam then I am a worthless person."
    • Acceptance by others "My parents will approve of me only if I pass this exam."
    • Self-judegement "I can't think of this answer immediately and that just shows how worthless a student I am."
    • Comparisons "Others are probably finding this exam easy. Everyone is better than I am and that is awful."
    • Anticipation "If I get nervous at all I just know I will go blank and totally fail this exam."
  • Interrupt irrational thinking by actively challenging your irrational thoughts.
    • Life will always be worth living regardless of this exam.
    • The test score is about this exam, not about me as a person.
    • I would like to pass this exam but life will go on either way.
    • How others do on this exam is irrelevant to me as a student and as a person.
    • As long as I give my best effort it doesn't matter if my exam score is less than perfect.
    • Even if I am nervous I will do my very best.
    • What others think of me is none of my business.
    • Whatever my test score, I intend to learn from my mistakes and do better next time.
    • I respect myself for taking this course, regardless of the outcome.
    • I would like a perfect score but I'll be OK with a pass.
    • I would prefer a pass to a fail but I will continue on regardless of my score.
    • It would be nice to have no anxiety, but I will put forth my best effort even if I am nervous.
  • Intrusive thoughts often arise because of anxiety
  • Intrusive thoughts distract from task focus
  • Like an anxious child demanding attention, they need soothing.
  • Interrupt intrusive thoughts with these six techniques
    1. Re-focus your attention: Deliberately and strongly re-focus your attention away from the inner thought back to the external exam task in front of you.
    2. Reassuring the thought: Affirm strongly that you will be fine or assert that you will take care of things.
    3. Attending to the thought: Focus your attention on the thought as though listening to a person speaking but allow no response and notice how the thought fades away in the light of your conscious focus.
    4. Practicing "Thought-Stopping": Before the exam (if you are alone), say or shout "STOP!" at the thought and intend for it to go away. Otherwise, shout "STOP!" internally to yourself.
    5. Visualization: Visualize a bubble around the thought and then shrink the bubble as small as you can. With your breath, imagine blowing the bubble into the furthest end of the universe. See and feel it disappearing and then re-focus externally on the exam task in front of you.
    6. Deliberate distraction: Distract your attention from the thought by practicing the brief relaxation and breathing techniques in Section 8.
  • Persistent, repetitive thoughts often depend on anxious tensions. Interrupt persistent exam-anxious thoughts by:
    • Thought-Stopping
      • Be equally persistent in rejecting the worrisome thought.
      • Keep returning your attention to the task of the exam.
    • Visualization
      • Visualize the "bucket" of the thought emptying itself into the "bucket" of the exam.
      • Redirect your attention back to the task of the exam.
    • Breathing and relaxation
      • Practice the brief exercises from Section 8.
      • Re-focus attention back to the exam.
    • Focusing on writing the exam and ignoring the thoughts
    • Never giving up
      • Be as persistent as the distracting thoughts you are trying to eliminate

7. Test-taking strategies

  • Survey
    • Read the instructions
    • Quickly survey every page of the test
    • See what will be expected of you
    • Re-read the instructions a second time
  • Priorize
    • When surveying the test, place a mark beside all questions you know you can answer
    • Answer the easiest questions first to guarantee marks in the least amount of time
  • Pace
    • Do not rush through the test
    • Regularly check time left for the rest of the questions
    • Pace yourself

8. Anxiety reduction techniques

  • Practice interrupting exam-anxious feelings
    • Reducing exam anxiety is a learned skill
    • Daily practice can lead to mastery
    • The more often you practice, the more responsive your body-mind will become
    • The more often you practice, the more likely you will remember to use them in the exam
  • Use it!
    • Use your study sessions to practice the techniques
    • Use the techniques just prior to the exam
    • Deliberately take short time-out breaks during the exam and use the techniques to reduce your stress
    • Apply the techniques just after the exam is over
    • Use the techniques before you go to sleep, especially the night before the exam
  • Techniques
    • Take a deep breath
      • Take a deep breath and hold it for three seconds.
      • Exhale audibly all at once and let your head, jaw and shoulders drop
      • Breathe easy 'into' your neck, jaw and shoulders and breathe again into the relaxed state
      • Repeat cycle once or twice.
    • Total tension release - tense your whole body one part at a time
      • Lift your toes and tense both calves
      • Tense your thighs and buttocks
      • Tighten your abdomen
      • Tense your chest and back
      • Tighten your arms and clench your fists
      • Tense your neck and clench your jaw
      • Tightly close your eyes
      • Take a deep breath and hold it for five seconds
      • Let it go at once
      • Notice the tension leaving your body
    • Focus on your feet and legs
      • Imagine them becoming warmer and warmer
      • Imagine them becoming heavier and heavier
      • Imagine them becoming warmer
      • Imagine them becoming heavier
      • Continue focusing on your feet and legs
      • Imagine the tension in the rest of your body flowing downward into your feet and legs making them heavier and warmer.
      • Emphasize exhalation in your breathing
    • Breathe your tensions away
      • Focus on your feet and legs
        • Draw all tensions into your breath
        • Exhale through your mouth
        • Expel those tensions away from your body
      • Focus on your abdomen
        • Repeat the cycle
      • Focus on your chest and back
        • Repeat the cycle
      • Focus on your arms and hands
        • Repeat the cycle
      • Focus on your shoulders, neck, jaw and face
        • Repeat the cycle
      • Focus on your total body tension
        • Repeat the cycle
    • Relaxation sanctuary
      • Focus on the inner screen of your mind's eye
      • Imagine your ideal safe, relaxing place
      • In your mind, send yourself there for 15 to 30 seconds
      • Breath easily and enjoy the relaxation
      • Close your eyes
      • Go there anytime you need a quick relaxing break
    • Mindfulness of breathing
      • Focus on the tip of your nostrils
      • Notice the air only at that point. Cool going in and warm going out.
      • Notice the sensation of the contact of air against your skin
      • Notice if your breath is fast or slow; deep or shallow; rough or smooth and easy.
    • Smile!
      • Really feel that smile spread throughout your body
      • Take a deep breath and exhale through your mouth

If exam anxiety persists even after using these methods, please contact Athabasca University's Counselling Services for further assistance and support.