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Understanding Anxiety

Test taking can be a very stressful experience. You experience lots of emotions and they can adversely effect your performance, so it’s important to find ways to maintain control and approach test day with as little anxiety as possible. Where does test anxiety come from? All anxiety is fueled by fear. When your body experiences fear it reacts by releasing a hormone known as adrenaline. The adrenaline provides the body with a burst of energy to help combat the fear. Adrenaline is a human survival tool. Often that means giving you the ability to either stand and fight the cause of the fear or, if it’s too dangerous to remain and fight, to run away from it. The two fears generally at work in producing test anxiety are the fear of failure and the fear of the unknown. Control is the key. When your anxiety is out of control, it inhibits success. When your anxiety is under control it allows you to harness the energy (from the adrenaline) and tap into it, keying you up for success (positive energy). A good analogy would be similar to the science of splitting an atom. It produces an incredible amount of energy. Safely harnessed, it could provide electricity to power the entire island. Left out of control, it has the potential to produce horrific catastrophe.

Here are Nine Strategies to Manage Anxiety and Keep It Under Control:

  • Prepare Thoroughly (knowledge breeds confidence & confidence overcomes fear)
  • Relax (take control of your thoughts – consciously tell yourself that you are in control, not the anxiety)
  • Breathe Deeply (use oxygen to your benefit – it produces a calming effect for the body and helps get more oxygen to the brain)
  • Detach (take a mental break – use short guided imagery daydream to get away from a stressful situation)
  • Re-frame (don’t allow the test to become more important than it actually is – consider the worst and realize that the test only has the power over you that you give it)
  • Zoom Out (put the test in its proper perspective – look at the big picture – recognize that in time the test will no longer matter)
  • Visualize Success (use the power of positive imagery – the self fulfilling prophecy – envision a positive outcome – praise yourself – be your own cheerleader)
  • Face the Fear (be aware of what’s going on with your symptoms – you can’t address something if you are not aware of it)
  • Exercise Aerobically (get rid of the stress through activity – walk, run, dance, swim, play a game – doctors will usually prescribe regular exercise as an effective treatment for stress)
  • Get Help (when anxiety & depression get serious, don’t go it alone)[1]

Managing Test Day Jitters

The first step to managing exam stress is to create and follow a good study plan throughout your semester, and in the weeks leading up to the exam.  Cramming at the last minute, or feeling unsure of your knowledge of course material can increase your stress level.  Using a variety of active learning strategies that promote deep knowledge of the course material can also improve your stress level.  Relying on rote memory for large amounts of material is more stressful than preparing for an exam where you understand the underlying principles and relationships between ideas thoroughly.

What can you do on exam day to manage any jitters?

  • Make sure you are well rested and that you have eaten some protein (settles your stomach).
  • Arrive early and take a moment to relax and reduce your anxiety. Avoid distractions including sitting near or anything or anyone who is distracting to you.
  • Listen carefully to instructions given by the instructor; then read the directions very carefully. For example, you may discover that you only need to answer three out of the five essay questions. Ask for clarification if you do not understand the directions.
  • As soon as the test begins, write down any relevant formulae, concepts, figures, or memory cues that will help you during the test. Add to this list as inspirations come. Refer to it as needed.
  • Scan the entire test to let yourself know what to expect before you start answering.
  • Plan how you will use the time for the test. Observe the point value of each section and figure out a rough time allowance accordingly. Bring a time piece and pay attention to the passing time.
  • Do the easiest questions first. This will increase your confidence and may trigger memory for other answers. Don’t waste time lingering over questions you don’t know right away.
  • Go back to look at the harder questions. Choose the highest value questions next. If a question is worth 3 marks, there are usually three points that the instructor is looking for. 10 marks = 10 points.
  • Focus on the questions and not the answers. Underline the key words in each question. Think about where you have seen or heard these key words before. Think about other questions that you have already answered for clues. Write your best answer. If it is multiple choice, then check the answers to see if there is an answer that is close to your answer.
  • If two questions or potential answers seem similar, look for what words are different. Think carefully about what difference each word makes. This can lead you to decide on the correct response.
  • Take your time. Don’t race through the exam and don’t leave early.
  • Use any extra time at the end to check for careless errors, re-visit any difficult questions you left unanswered, or proofread essay answers for grammar and spelling. Make sure you answered all the questions!
  • When you have answered all of the questions, take a minute to re-scan your paper. Do not change any answers unless you are absolutely sure that you have made a mistake. Your first response is more likely to be correct. Second-guessing can lead to lower scores.

Good luck on your exams!  Now that you have carefully planned your learning, and monitored the effects of your study strategies on your learning, you will now have the opportunity to evaluate your success in mastering the key concepts in your courses.

Try it!

Make a plan for exam day:

  1. What will you do in the days before the exam to manage stress?
  2. What strategies from this chapter do you want to try on exam day?

Licenses and Attributions:

Content previously published in University 101: Study, Strategize and Succeed by Kwantlen Polytechnic University, licensed as CC BY-SA.

Adaptations: Added anxiety content


  1. Adapted from Ellis, Dave, (2006), Becoming a Master Student, Cengage Learning


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Foundations For Success Copyright © 2020 by David Capriola is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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