As you walk into class clutching your scantron and #2 pencil, your palms are sweating and there are knots in your stomach. Despite the fact that you went to class, joined a study group, and even made a whole stack of flashcards, your nerves are out of control as you sit down to take the final exam. As you try to focus on the first question, you can’t help but think of what the consequences would be if you failed the exam, question your own preparedness, and try not to get sweat and/or tears all over your paper.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. According to the American Test Anxieties Association, 16-20% of students experience high test anxiety, with another 18% experiencing moderate-high test anxiety.
Test anxiety is characterized by both physical and psychological symptoms. The physical symptoms include muscle tension and sweating, while the psychological symptoms include worry, dread, fear of failure and catastrophizing (believing consequences will be much worse than they actually will). It tends to happen when two factors are high: performance pressure and perceived difficulty. You can think of performance pressure as the amount that’s riding on the exam. If it’s a final that is 45% of your grade, performance pressure will be high, but if it’s a quiz worth .5% of your grade, performance pressure will be much lower. Perceived difficulty is just what it sounds, how difficult you perceive the test to be. Keep in mind that perceived difficulty can vary greatly among peers because students’ strengths are highly personalized and varied. So if your STEM major friend is telling you they’re not nervous at all for the Chem 201 test but you’re sweating bullets, it’s nothing to be concerned about. People’s academic strengths vary, so your friend may just be perceiving the difficulty of the test as much lower.
But is test anxiety all bad? The research is somewhat split. Some studies find that small doses of test anxiety can actually motivate us to increase study time and can even have positive outcomes for test scores, while other studies have found that test anxiety actively works against memory capability and negatively affects test scores. Most have found that small doses of anxiety can motivate us somewhat, but the problem arises when that dose is too high, which it often is.
There are a few reasons why high test anxiety negatively affects test scores. The first is that when we experience the psychological symptoms of test anxiety like worrying and catastrophizing, we divide our brain power between having these negative thoughts and thinking about the answer to the test question. This disrupts our ability to use all of our mental resources to answer the questions correctly. The second reason is along the same lines, where our mental resources are divided between experiencing the physical symptoms of test anxiety (sweating, tense muscles, etc.) and trying to answer the questions. It’s pretty hard to solve a math problem when you’re also obsessing about failing, self-conscious about the sweat stains rapidly forming in your armpits and trying to massage out that stress knot in your neck.
Luckily, research has confirmed a few methods to reduce or beat test anxiety altogether. Here are the top three ways to beat test anxiety, according to the research:
Studies have confirmed that aerobic exercise can help reduce test anxiety for some students. In one study, students who normally led inactive lifestyles started doing moderate aerobic exercise three times a week and showed significant decreases in their test anxiety, and these results have been replicated by multiple studies.
It is theorized that the reason why exercise can be effective is because of the “Self-Esteem and Mastery hypothesis” which says that physical activity increases physical ability, which positively influences our estimation of ourselves, and consequently leads to higher self-esteem. If our estimation of ourselves is higher, we may be less inclined to worry, catastrophize, and be distracted by negative thoughts at test time.
One way that you can work exercise into your routine is to sign up for a fun aerobics class at your university. Most schools have many options, from cardio kickboxing to beginners yoga. You can even schedule one of these classes an hour or two before a class that might have tough exams for optimal test anxiety minimization!
Studies have also confirmed that many different relaxation exercises can be effective for reducing test anxiety and increasing test scores. It is important to note that these activities are not meant to treat people with serious anxiety disorders, nor are they sure-fire methods to solve test anxiety. They are simply easy, at-home methods that if practiced each day may have some effect on test anxiety. Those suffering from more severe anxiety should seek the help of a professional.
There are two main types of relaxation exercises: long term and short term. Long term relaxation exercises are those that you work on over time and then put to use when test time comes.
One example is called “cue-controlled relaxation” and it consists of doing deep breathing in a relaxed state, and simultaneously repeating a cue word or phrase like “I am relaxed” or “calm”. Once you’ve trained your body to associate this cue word with that relaxed state, you can tell yourself the cue word when you’re experiencing anxiety and it can help return your body to the calm state. Here’s how you do it:
- Choose a time when you feel relaxed and won’t be interrupted.
- Either sit comfortably or lie flat on your back (many find it is easier to perform the activity laying down).
- Begin with a slow, deep breath. Place your hand on your abdomen to make sure it is moving in and out with each breath.
- After breathing in, hold your breath for 5-10 seconds and then breathe out, slowly repeating your cue word. Repeat.
- When in a stressful situation, silently repeat your cue word and it should calm your anxiety symptoms somewhat
It is advised that you practice this each day, consistently, for several days or weeks before expecting results come exam time.
If practicing every day doesn’t sound appealing, or if you need a quicker fix for your exam tomorrow morning, you can try some short term relaxation techniques. These can be completed at your desk in the few minutes before exam time.
The First is the Tensing and Differential Relaxation Method:
This method helps you relax by tensing and relaxing your muscles all at once. Here’s how it’s done:
- Sit with your feet flat on the floor.
- With your hands, grab underneath your chair.
- Push down with your feet and pull up on your chair at the same time for about five seconds.
- Relax for 5-10 seconds.
- Repeat the procedure two to three times.
- Try to relax all your muscles except the ones you use to take the test.
This is a quick, simple exercise that can be completed anywhere right before you begin your test, and should help to alleviate some of the symptoms associated with test anxiety.
The second is The Palming Method:
This method is a visualization exercise that can help to reduce anxiety.
- Close and cover your eyes using the center of the palms of your hands.
- Prevent your hands from touching your eyes by placing your fingers on your forehead. It is important to not touch or rub your eyes during this activity.
- Think of an imaginary relaxing scene. Mentally visualize the scene. Picture the scene as if you were actually there, through your own eyes.
- Visualize this relaxing scene for two minutes.
For added effectiveness, practice visualizing this same scene for several days before the test.
Attentional Deployment is really just a fancy way of saying “do the easy questions first”. By “deploying” your attention to the easier questions first, you can avoid a lot of the negative thoughts that come with getting stuck on a difficult question right off the bat. A 1999 study found that students who frequently use this strategy demonstrated significantly lower test anxiety than peers. This is because focusing on the easy questions first allows us to reduce the perceived difficulty of the exam. As you knock question after question out of the park, your confidence will be bolstered and you won’t get bogged down by the worry that comes with tackling difficult questions at the beginning. Once you’ve boosted your confidence and completed most of the test, you’ll be ready to take on the harder questions.
The best thing you can do to beat test anxiety is to find a way to stay relaxed–and you should stick with whatever method works best for you. Test anxiety can be tough, but it doesn’t have to get the best of you. And remember, statistically almost half of your peers experience test anxiety too, so you’re not alone!
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Other helpful law school tips:
- Caution Law Student Under Pressure! Handling Law School Stress
- Podcast Episode 29: Handling Pressure in Law School (Guest Dr. Hank Weisinger)
- All The Supplies You Need to Start Law School Right
- How to Think Like a Successful Law Student
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