Tests can be a huge source of anxiety for many students.

Although some anxiety is adaptive and can help facilitate our desire to prepare for exams, too much anxiety can impact our performance and can affect our health. For example, excessive anxiety can lead to deficits in working memory and ability to reason (MacLoed & Donnellan, 1993) – which are important cognitive functions, especially in test-taking situations.

Therefore, it is important to manage our anxiety levels to ensure that you are performing at your best and maintaining a good overall quality of life when pursuing your academics.

Below, I discuss three areas of development to work on that may be helpful in feeling more confident about upcoming tests while maintaining (and even improving) your mental health.

Optimizing studying methods

Competence breeds confidence. When we feel confident in our knowledge of the material, we are less likely to feel extremely anxious about a test. In fact, the same feelings of jitters may be perceived as excitement to showcase the knowledge you have developed rather than fear of failure!

There are a few strategies that I have personally found extremely helpful to support competence in studying.

1. Start early. For many of us, the anxiety of tests come from feeling underprepared and then spending an all-nighter before the test to try and cram as much information as possible. Although this can work for some folks, I have found that my mental health and feelings of competence have been much more positive when I started early.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20) rule states that 80% of our results come from just 20% of our work. Therefore, the amount of cramming needed is less because we are being more efficient with our time. Moreover, having more nights in between study sessions allow our brain to fully consolidate our learning. When learning is consolidated, the feeling of ease of retrieving information is much smoother. When you cram for an exam, you might remember some of the information, but you may also have noticed that it’s much harder to recollect the information from your brain. This is because the information is not well consolidated from a lack of sleep and repetition.  

For some people, starting early can be challenging because of procrastination. Habits are formed when it is made easy and obvious. For example, I might avoid the idea of saying “I have to study for 3 hours right now”. Instead, I will place my textbook near me, so that it is accessible and obvious, and say to myself “I will just write up notes for one page”. Oftentimes, the hardest part is getting started and momentum is much easier to generate after that first page.

2. Study in different spots. Although some guides may suggest that you study in the same place, I personally find that can lead to ‘contextual’ learning. This means that I am better at recalling information when I am in the spot that I am studying all the time – in my room, at the library, etc. Because of this, the information may be harder to recall when I am doing the test in a novel environment.

I find it most helpful to study in different areas, which gives me a break from the monotony, refueling my motivation. And more importantly, it allows my learning to be freed from contextual learning so that I can reliably recall and apply information in different situations.

Students studying in a park

3. Study actively. Rote memorization can be tedious and may not demonstrate true understanding of ideas, which is important when a lot of questions are about applying the information that you studied.

In my undergrad, I often wrote and printed out my note so I can play with them. I would highlight and bolds words, draw arrows to connect ideas, and ask questions to myself about how certain ideas relate to one another and why these concepts are important. By actively engaging in these concepts, I developed a more in-depth understanding of the material, which increased my ability to consider deeply for complicated questions and answer them correctly (at least most of the time).

Increase your inner resources to study and test take

Self-care is important to ensure that we are in the best condition to not only to take the test, but to make sure that our study sessions are productive.

If you are consistently tired, dehydrated, hungry, and sleep-deprived, you will be cognitively and emotionally depleted. You’re going to spend more time inefficiently studying and won’t be able to optimally perform on your exam.

Consequently, taking time out of your day to eat/drink well, sleep the right number of hours, and exercise can paradoxically give you more time to prepare for your exam efficiently and productively (and allow you to perform to the utmost extent of your capabilities).

If you are interested in other ways to improve your resources, check out this article on an evidence-based set of strategies called PLEASE Skills.

Girl resting on a tree

Additional evidence-based strategies to reduce anxiety

Beyond adequately preparing for your exam in the described ways and keeping to excellent self-care, there are a few strategies that are supported by research to reduce anxiety.

For example, regular relaxation practice, such as box breathing and muscle relaxation techniques, can be a great way to reduce anxiety generally. Even a few minutes a day can be helpful to reduce arousal levels to support better well-being.

Another option is mindfulness meditations, which works by allowing us to sit with different thoughts and feelings without being overwhelmed. In mindfulness, we take a present and non-judgmental awareness to our current circumstances. Similar to relaxation exercises, they can be practiced for just a few minutes a day and can be found everywhere online. Pick the one you like best!

Finally, cognitive strategies can be helpful to challenge scary thoughts about tests. For example, you may have the thought that failing means you are worthless or that it means you won’t be able to go into the career of your dreams. Finding the belief through downward arrow techniques and then challenging them with thought records can be helpful to come up with more balanced thoughts that reduce anxiety.

I hope this post was helpful in reducing your anxiety on taking tests – even if just a little bit! Please consider subscribing to the mailing list if you found this post helpful!

Best wishes,