Test anxiety or performance anxiety is something that can get in the way of strong results on a test. And when that test is an important one—one that seems like it can determine a student’s future, for instance, because it is related to what colleges he applies to--test anxiety can be very incapacitating.
In its mildest form test anxiety might cause butterflies in the tummy, and tight muscles in your neck and back that you notice only when you start to get sore an hour into the test. At its worse, test anxiety can cause difficulty in concentrating, even sometimes causing your mind to go blank. As an example of how difficult anxiety can make things, the admissions director of an East Coast college told me this story. He was preparing to give his first speech to the faculty at the campus where he had been newly appointed. When he was introduced in front of an auditorium full of dignitaries he walked to the stage and placed his speech on the podium. Looking down, preparatory to beginning his speech, the top page of the speech appeared blank. He took a very deep breath and looked around smiling; when he looked down again, the words of the speech had reappeared.
When it comes to avoiding test anxiety, there are four behaviors you need to master to be well prepared for a test:
Know the material on which you will be tested is the first behavior to master. Know it as it was taught, but also know how to apply it in new situations and be able to manipulate it. Sometimes students think that being familiar with the material is enough. They say, “Well I read the chapter twice.” But in a situation where you are likely to be nervous, you have to know it better than this. It is like the difference between being able to recognize information and being able to recall information. If I ask you to recognize the U.S. states in a group of words on a page, all you have to do is circle the familiar words that you know are states. If I ask you to recall the U. S. states, I might give you a blank sheet of paper and ask you to list all the states. The second activity is much more difficult to do. It requires much more preparation. And if you were anxious, it would be much easier to forget the names of the states. But this is how well you need to know that material on which you will be tested.
Know the format of the test is the second behavior to master. How many sections does it have? How much time will you have for each section? How will each section be graded? Does each section always contain these same kinds of questions? Are they always in this order? How do you usually perform on this section of the test? Do you run out of time? How can you compensate for that?
For instance on the ACT Exam, the Reading Section always comes third in the test—after the English and Math Sections. It is always 35 minutes long. It always has four reading passages, each followed by 10 questions. The first passage is always fiction; the second, social science; the third, humanities; and the fourth, physical science. If you have trouble finishing all the questions in 35 minutes, it is okay to guess on the ones that are left, because the test givers do not penalize you more than one point for wrong answers. And if you have to rush in your reading, it is easier to skim the social science or the physical science sections because they are less likely to have a “voice” you need to “get”.
Practice is the third behavior to master to avoid test anxiety. I remember watching a world class tennis player practicing at Harry Hopman’s Tennis Academy. She hit the same shot for about an hour and a half. There was a towel on the court that the ball was supposed to hit. After she finished that she ran wind sprints for 15 minutes in 90 degrees until she couldn’t breathe. The idea was that if she could make the shot under these conditions she would be able to do it every time even with the pressure on the court in competition.
The only way to experience taking an admissions test and building up the endurance you need to concentrate for three and one half hours is to take practice tests. The students of mine who have become the most successful test takers have committed to taking a whole practice test every Saturday for four weeks before they actually take the real test. And I believe in rewards. So I tell each student to treat him or herself to something nice when finished. Sometimes one buys a new article of clothing; sometimes one watches sports for four hours lying on the sofa. You get the idea.
Practice behaviors to employ incase test anxiety strikes during the test is the fourth and final behavior to master to avoid test anxiety. These behaviors usually have to do with interrupting the kind of thinking that takes you away from the task at hand and toward a whirlwind of negative self doubt. One behavior might be a deep breathing exercise. Another might be repeating a mantra of positive affirmations that you have memorized ahead of time. Another might be systematically tightening and then loosening the muscles in your body. I like a new ritual I have recently learned: take a deep breath, close your eyes rub your hands together a few times and then put one hand on your heart and one on your head and let you breathe out. After a half a minute, open your eyes and move on.
And good luck on your next test!
Several years ago I had a client who, when he came to my office each week, spent the first several minutes complaining about all the unjust happenings that had occurred in his life since our previous meeting. His teachers did not know how to teach, and, therefore, his test grades were low. His mother was sloppy and disorganized, and, therefore, he had to eat out all the time, thereby wasting his money. The students at school were lazy and left their lunch wrappers all over the tables in the cafeteria, and, therefore, there were no clean tables where he could sit to study or to eat lunch with friends.
One day after several weeks of this, I told the student a story. The story was about a soccer team. The members of the team were on the field practicing. Each day the coach gave the players directions about which moves to practice when their goal was to get the ball down the field to the goal and what moves to practice to block the other team from being able to move the ball in the other direction. Little by little as the team practiced they seemed to be getting better at moving the ball down the field, as well as better at keeping the other team from moving the ball the other way on the field. Meanwhile, other kids were in the stands watching the practice. They were watching the players on the field, and talking about the coach and his ideas, or commenting on the players. The kids in the stands said things like, "That coach doesn’t know how to coach. He should teach the team to use more passes, or more deception, or more maneuvers if he wants them to get the ball down the field." And they said, "See that kid over there, he can’t run for anything. The kid over there is so awkward. I could do a better job than that."
Where do you see yourself in this picture I asked my client? "I would be in the stands," he said. "Yes, you would!" And in the stands all you can do is critique the guys on the field. You can’t get any coaching. And you can’t get any practice. You can’t learn any new techniques. And you can’t learn how to get stuff done. And you can’t find out if you have what it takes to step up. In the stands is a very safe place.
"How could you be more on the field?" I asked my client. We talked a long time about the role he could take in his own learning, for example. If, in fact, his teacher didn’t do a good job teaching something, what resources did he have? There were the other students in the class. There was going back to the teacher for extra help. There were internet tutors like Khan Academy. There were other adults already in his life—parents, former teachers, older siblings, for example. There was the library with supplemental books, text books, and study guides. There was the possibility of asking for a paid tutor. And there was bearing down and reading and re-reading the text book. In fact, sometimes teaching yourself is even better than being taught. All of these could put my client more on the field than in the stands, where he would feel more like a victim and an onlooker than a player.
The next time my client came to see me, when he started to tell me about something unjust that had happened. I asked him if he felt like he was in the stands, again. And he said, "I kind of wish you hadn’t told me that story."
Next time you feel like something has happened to you, try to think about what you can do to put yourself on the field. Because it is always better to feel like you can take action to overcome a problem than to feel like you are relegated to being a powerless critical observer.
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