Help your child understand and overcome Exam Anxiety before it's too late!
What is Exam Anxiety?
According to APA(American Psychological Association), Test anxiety or Exam anxiety is “tension and apprehensiveness associated with taking a test, frequently resulting in a decrease in test performance”. In simple words, it's a common and often normal stress reaction experienced before, during, and sometimes after exams. Some degree of nervous energy and tension is generally required to motivate us to study and perform well in exams – it is important to remember exam anxiety is not all bad. However, Exam anxiety presents an issue when it is intense, continues over time, and impedes academic performance.
What are the potential causes of exam anxiety?
High expectations from family and friends
Negative exam experiences
Lack of preparedness
Biology and our personality and our life experiences play a role. Some people tend to worry or may be more prone to developing exam anxiety but this does not mean it cannot be managed and improved with practice and support.
What are the symptoms of exam anxiety?
Some of the commonly reported symptoms are as follows:
Feeling nervous, unsettled, or overwhelmed
Feeling panic or experiencing panic attacks
Feeling down or helpless
Feeling a sense of shame or guilt.
Increased heart rate
Muscle tension throughout the body
Nausea and/or digestive changes
Fatigue without physical exertion
Difficulty breathing or tightness in the chest
Loss of appetite or over-eating
Light-headedness or feeling dizzy
Sleep changes (over or under-sleeping or disrupted sleep).
Difficulties concentrating and/or paying attention
Difficulties recalling or processing key information (going blank)
Racing or disorganized thoughts
Irrational or unhelpful thoughts
Preoccupation with thoughts of failure or embarrassment
Worrying about the time constraints or outcome of the exam
Comparison to others during a testing situation
Able to recall exam answers after the exam is over.
Pacing or acting restless (shaking leg, increased activity).
Cramming or staying up the night before in the hope it will help improve your grades or reduce anxiety.
Withdrawing from others or obsessing about study
Procrastinating and avoiding cues relating to exams including study
Making simple mistakes on exams despite knowing the content
Not attending exams
Leaving the exam as soon as possible or before finishing
Using alcohol or other substances to distract from stress/study.
What might help before an exam?
Expect and accept that some level of anxiety will occur and that this is a normal part of the student experience.
Be prepared: Check the location and time, be on time and ensure you bring what you need (e.g., several pencils and pens, a calculator, ruler, etc.). Make a checklist if helpful.
Exercise and eat food that is good for you and helps you stay nourished. Rest and avoid excessive caffeine as this can increase anxiety.
Have fun – enjoying things and connecting with others can help reduce anxiety.
Learn to identify your anxiety signs and acknowledge to yourself that you are feeling anxious (e.g., I’m feeling a little jittery. I guess I’m a bit nervous about the exam.”).
Practice relaxation techniques and do things that calm you down (e.g., breathing, mindfulness, visualization, uplifting music, etc.).
Learn the material thoroughly by studying each day even if it’s only for a small amount of time so that you feel confident with the content.
Talk to someone - someone who knows that you are feeling anxious such as a partner, friend, or family member. You can also speak to a counselor through UQ or externally if this feels more comfortable.
Set boundaries with yourself. Tell yourself, “STOP” when you notice negative or anxious thinking, take a deep breath and refocus your attention on something in your environment.
Avoid thinking about past poor performances on exams and focus on managing the present as well as you can as this is what is within your control.
Generate positive and encouraging self-talk/affirmations and be your own best friend/coach (e.g., “You can do this” or “You know this material”).
Get perspective: remind yourself that this is only one of many assessments that you will complete throughout is only a short period to get period grandstand scheme of your career/life.
Develop good general study skills (a learning adviser can help with this).
Discuss course content with friends, arrange a study group or find a tutor to consolidate learning.
Ask the lecturer/tutor what type of questions will be on the exam and what topics will be emphasized if you feel very unsure. And review past exams to practice or get a sense of the format/questions.
Focus on calming down on the way to the exam rather than trying to cram in the last-minute study as this will not be effective when stress is high.
Reduce the amount of talking with classmates before exams if you feel that it is unhelpful or actually increases your anxiety.
Set yourself some rewards for completing the exam – e.g. having lunch or seeing a friend or classmate afterward, seeing a movie, etc. so that you have something to look forward to.
What can help during the exam?
Take a few moments for yourself to try and calm down and accept the presence of some anxiety. Try a breathing or mindfulness exercise and encourage yourself (e.g. “I can do this, I know the content”).
Acknowledge your anxiety and allow it to just be there (e.g., “I notice that I feel a bit nervous but that’s ok – my body is just telling me that this is important to me and I’m just going to try my best”).
Try to make yourself as comfortable as you can (in your chair, on the desk, etc.).
Remember that most people find exams somewhat anxiety-provoking and understand that they can be uncomfortable. Remember the people in your life who are encouraging you during this exam.
Read the instructions and questions carefully. Plan and consider your thoughts for essays and ensure that you re-read questions before answering as missing a word can make a difference in how you answer.
Visualize yourself staying calm and doing well and return to relaxation strategies throughout the exam if your anxiety fluctuates.
If permitted, write down any formulas or important points to remember on the first page to refer back to during the exam while it is fresh in your mind.
Organize and budget your time so you aren’t under as much pressure and you don’t run out of time. Allow enough time to try each question and start with the questions you know.
Disregard how slow or fast others complete or hand in their exams. Focus on your owning and own exam as speed is not part of the marking criteria.
Give an answer to a question even if you aren’t sure (providing there are no penalties for incorrect responses). If you try each question you may receive part marks which can make a big difference.
If you go “blank” or feel overwhelmed try another question. Remember that putting any answer is usually better than leaving questions blank.
Remind yourself that the exam is just one part of the course assessment and that it goes for a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things.
What are the ways to try and relax after the exam
Continue to recognize and accept any lingering anxiety as your nervous system begins to relax (often this will take at least 20 mins after high stress).
Recognize your effort and accept that the result is now out of your control.
Reward yourself! Do something to reward yourself for your hard work and completing the exam even if it is something small.
Complete a relaxing activity or engage in something that you know might calm you down such as talking to a friend, meditating, exercising, or having quiet time to yourself.
Dwell on the questions you nailed and take a constructive view of the ones which may have proven more challenging as ongoing learning areas.
Review your exam performance and change your strategy if needed. You could attend a skills workshop from a subject matter specialist or book an appointment with a Career Counselor. Seek clarification and support from lecturers or tutors regarding content if you are concerned so you can feel prepared for the next exam.
Reflect on feedback about your exam performance and how you can use this information to continue to develop and integrate your knowledge and skills.
Try to keep anxiety, performance, and self-worth separate in your mind. Remember you’re your grades have nothing to do with your worth or who you are as a person.
Seek support with anxiety management if needed for current or future potential anxiety with your teachers, parents, or Counselor.
Remind yourself that some anxiety during exams is a normal experience of being a student and is manageable with the right help and planning.