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Making Test Anxiety Work For You

By: Abby Wright

Throughout my years of schooling, I have always thought that I was a terrible test-taker. I would dread every exam that came my way. I would get this feeling the night before or even days before a test. The night before, I would be overwhelmed by the feeling of butterflies in my stomach, not being able to sleep. Stress and negative thoughts rolled through my mind. My classmates share many of these feelings. Is it normal?

I have test anxiety.

When I came to the conclusion that test-anxiety is a thing, I was both relieved and distraught. I was relieved to know that it is a real psychological condition. I was distraught, because I now had this so-called “test-anxiety” to worry about on top of the tests that were coming up.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, test anxiety is a psychological condition in which people can experience immense stress and feelings of anxiety before or during testing, or any performance situation.

Being a college student at Elon, still dealing with test anxiety, I know that there are many other individuals who have the same feelings as me and most people do not know how to deal with it. When speaking to a fellow Elon student, who wishes to stay anonymous, about how she copes with her testing anxiety, she says it is necessary for her “take a break from studying, take deep breaths and find a way to distract” herself from what she is feeling.

At Elon, there are many students that are involved in multiple organizations on campus or have double majors and minors. In general, the typical Elon student has a lot on their plate. When a student is juggling multiple tasks, especially when they are academic-related, one may not feel prepared or confident in the test that is coming up on the calendar.

This is where test anxiety can play a big role in one’s life. I know firsthand that if it is not controlled then it can seem like the whole world is falling apart. With that being said, most people would assume and agree (from personal experiences) that anxiety, in general, is a negative condition that could hurt one’s performance in all walks of life.  Because I still deal with these problems and I know others do too, I know there must be ways to combat test anxiety. But how?

Psychologists Shannon Brady, Bridgette Hard, and James Gross published a study in 2017 called “Reappraising Test Anxiety Increases Academic Performance of First-Year College Students.” This study addresses how changing students’ perceptions of test anxiety can help academically rather than hurt students’ academic performance.

Previous research has been conducted on test anxiety and test performance.  The study conducted by Cassady and Johnson called “Cognitive test anxiety and academic performance.” indicates that test anxiety is split into two categories, emotionality test anxiety and worry test anxiety. Emotionality can be defined by the individual experiencing physiological and emotional symptoms. Worry can be defined by the individual experiencing thoughts of worry about the future outcomes either during the test or after. Some examples of thoughts could include, “What if I did not study enough?” or “What if I fail this test? Then, what will happen to my grade?” I believe I would fall into the worry category because I experience thoughts of worry and get anxious about the outcome of the exam.

When speaking to the same Elon student, who experiences test anxiety, she said she experiences “a pit in her stomach, tear formations in her eyes and an overwhelmed feeling”. Based on the research it seems she would fit in the emotionality category.

Brady, Hard, and Gross’s study suggests a way that the worry of test anxiety affecting your test performance can be combated. In the study, students were sent an email the night before an exam. The email gave a blurb about research showing that stress and anxiety can help testing performance. It also incorporated a sentence of reassurance that being stressed is okay.

The students that received and read the email did significantly better on the test the next day. This study shows that being aware of your mental processes and understanding how they work can help you perform better.

To try this out myself, I decided to write a similar message on a post-it note and place it on my computer while I studied and continued to read it. While I still knew I was stressed, the reassurance I gave myself and doing my own research on this topic has helped me understand my test anxiety and how it can push me to do better rather than hold me back. The next day I felt prepared and performed well on the exam.

Test anxiety can certainly be a burden, but this is when you do not know how to cope with it. This study is a good way to be educated on coping mechanisms of test anxiety. This particular coping mechanism of changing one’s perspective on test anxiety has been a great way to show people who do not know how to cope with test anxiety a new method to try out. When it comes down to choosing the correct coping mechanism, it is truly up to the individual to try whatever may work best for them.

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