Written by Steve Shotts, Director of Instruction, ETC Test Prep
Our previous article noted the importance of developing a plan to address one’s test anxiety. What follows is a four-step plan one can use to help reduce feelings of anxiety, and increase test performance.
Step 1: Relax
Reducing anxiety requires breaking the web of feedback responses, and the first place to start is the body. Relaxation techniques should be a priority for anyone who experiences severe anxiety. There are a number of well-known relaxation techniques that you might try, but most involve one or the other of two components: controlled breathing, and quiet attentiveness.
Generally, your first response to anxiety will be to focus on your breathing, attempting to take long, deep breaths while attending to the sounds and sensations of the air slowly moving in and out. With practice this will reduce the unpleasant sensations associated with anxiety and result in a calmer state that puts you back in control.
In addition to practicing controlled breathing, some time during the weeks before the test should be spent practicing quiet attentiveness. The first step in developing this ability is to try to focus on your breathing to the exclusion of everything else – especially that unending, meandering internal monologue that is the constant companion of each of us. Unwanted thoughts will persist; just try to focus on your breathing. Once you have slowed your thoughts, next attend to your bodily sensations. A commonly recommended method is to “scan” the body, beginning with the top of your head, for instance, and slowly moving down the body, trying to notice each sensation occurring there. Developing these relaxation techniques will not only help to reduce your pre-test anxiety, but also will provide you with valuable tools when anxiety strikes during the test itself.
Step 2: Accentuate the positive
Relaxation is an important part of any anxiety reduction plan, but it only goes so far.
The next step is to avoid (or at least reduce) those emotionally charged negative thoughts about the test that directly impact your ability to perform well on it. This, of course, is much easier said than done. And like the relaxation techniques discussed above, it requires concerted effort in the weeks before the test to be able to successfully replace the self-destructive, negative thoughts about the test with other (true!) thoughts that instead provide encouragement and build confidence.
One helpful technique is the “half empty/half full” game. For one entire week, write down all of the negative thoughts you have about the test in a long list. Then at the end of the week, next to each negative thought write a true, positive thought that concerns the same point. So for example, next to the negative thought “I never have time to finish a test section” write the positive thought “I only have to answer about two-thirds of the questions to get a good score.” From then on, whenever one of the destructive negative thoughts from your list creeps into your head focus on the helpful positive thought you have associated with it.
With enough practice you will learn to automatically chase away your negative thoughts and replace them with the positive, constructive thoughts that you have associated with them instead.
A closely related technique involves imagining that you are taking the test, and that anxiety strikes. The goal is to practice your techniques for dealing with anxiety in this imaginative setting so that on test day you know how to effectively respond. For example, one would imagine taking a few deep breaths, recalling some relevant, true thought (“this problem is not that important; I can skip it if I want”), and resuming the test with minimal disruption.
Step 3: Perform
Of course, reducing your anxiety is not enough to guarantee success on test day; you must also be well-prepared. For those who suffer from test anxiety, the goal should be to become so familiar with the questions on the test and the common tasks required of you that test taking becomes a matter of routine, like brushing your teeth or tying your shoes. In other words, solving test questions should become as much a matter of reacting to familiar situations as it is a matter of thinking about how to solve problems.
This is why students with test anxiety probably benefit more than the average student from taking many practice tests, and under circumstances as much like the actual test as possible. The familiarity that results from repeated exposure to the testing situation not only serves to reduce anxiety itself, but it also helps to routinize your test taking so that anxiety is less likely to interfere with your test taking if it does occur.
Moreover, after several weeks of preparation you will notice improvements in your test taking performance. They may be small improvements, and there may still be much that you have to work on. But thinking about those parts of the test that you have improved on will serve to reinforce a positive attitude toward your preparation and provide a foundation for further improvement.
Step 4: Put the pieces together
Remember, a little bit of anxiety is a good thing and will help you perform at your best on exam day. Taking steps to control anxiety is an essential part of a successful test preparation plan. Effective management of anxiety requires practice, and the techniques described here should set you on the path to a less anxious, and more successful, testing experience.
ETC Test Prep specializes in providing test preparation classes at an affordable price, and with the assurance of quality. ETC’s select staff of dedicated professionals work to ensure that each student reaches his or her testing goals.