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There is a famous scene in the movie Summer School where a group of students is about to take a test. One classmate lets out a blood-curdling scream and says, “Tension breaker. Had to be done.” This likely resonates with any student who has felt nervous about taking an exam.

Everyone has their own way of relieving stress, but there are some easy strategies to maximize your success while minimizing your test-taking anxiety.

Roots of Test Anxiety

According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, more than 86 percent of students have experienced test anxiety, and there may be as many reasons for this as there are academic majors.

Kyle B., a third-year student at Kings University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, worries about his ability to perform on tests. “[I mostly] worry about what’s going to be on [the test]. I [have a] nagging feeling that the one thing I didn’t study is going to be there,” Kyle says.

Dr. Jennifer Volsky Rushton, Coordinator of Clinical Training at Dalhousie University in Halifax, believes that students feel anxious around exam time because there is an immense amount of pressure placed upon them. She explains, “Many exams are worth a large percentage of [a] grade, [and] many students need high GPAs to compete for graduate or professional school positions. Exam anxiety is usually a result of real pressure. When a person experiences anxiety about [one] exam, it usually generalizes to anxiety about all exams.”

So what can you do to keep test anxiety at bay?

Study in Style

One of the first steps is to prepare in a way that benefits you the most. Thorough preparation is the foundation of less stress, worry, and anxiety about how well you’ll do.

“Know your learning style. Work hard, but develop study habits that work for you, not someone else,” suggests Paul de Souza, a professor at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario. This approach can lead to students finding the methods of studying that will work best for them.

A Little at a Time
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, have found that one proven study strategy is connecting what you’re learning now to what you already know. Many universities provide resources that help you make these connections. Learning Services at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, offer short online tutorials, suggesting strategies for connecting new concepts to your existing knowledge base and framing information in a way that adds meaning.

The program also suggests studying in short spurts, spaced out over several days or weeks, rather than cramming everything into one huge study session—likely the night before your exam.

Starting early with smaller bits of information makes studying more manageable for your brain, and allows you to practice retrieving the information rather than just memorizing or storing it. It is not enough to just know the material; you have to be able to recall it and articulate it.

Florain Bail, a professor at Dalhousie University, advises his students to commit a short period of time each day to studying, which is less daunting than spending the whole day in the library. He says, “It is often difficult to bracket [large] slots of time for study. [I suggest] committing [an] hour [or two] of each day.” If it is challenging to devote specific times daily, consider bringing study materials like flashcards with you when you go out. You may have a few free moments, so you can use that time to review.

'Pocket work' ideas

Breaking test prep into small bits helps you in two ways:
  1. It’s easier to commit manageable chunks of information to memory and recall them later.
  2. You can take your studying more easily on the go
For example, create flash cards to review quick concepts and terms, and carry them with you to refer to throughout the day. The act of creating and repeatedly reviewing these small bits of information will make it easier for you to recall the facts.

Many of the Student Health 101 survey respondents noted that memorization, repetition, and flash cards were the methods of studying they employed most.

Lily F., a fourth-year student at York University in Toronto, Ontario, says, “It’s especially helpful for me to write flash cards in different colours to help me memorize the information.”

Don’t Get Caught Speeding… Through a Test

Even well-prepared students can inadvertently sabotage their good study habits by making simple mistakes during an actual test. To avoid fumbles, follow these suggestions:

  • Arrive at your test location a little early. You don’t want to feel the extra pressure of being late or rushed.
  • Read all instructions slowly and carefully.
  • Follow the directions; don’t ignore them in haste!
  • Respond to questions about the material you know before tackling the more difficult ones.
  • Speak to your instructor before the exam, and during, if you need clarification on something being asked.
  • Give yourself time to review your answers before you submit your work.

Reviewing your work allows you to catch any small mistakes that could add up to a big plummet in your grade.

These strategies can also help you feel more confident, which may prevent post-exam rumination for many students.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Almost 60 percent of the Student Health 101 survey respondents indicated that they use deep breathing to help them stay calm during a test. Thirteen percent said they turn to visualization techniques, and together these can help your body stay relaxed.

More relaxation techniques to use during exams & presentations

Reducing Test Anxiety

Remember how relieved you feel when you finish a class presentation or exam? That feeling of relief is facilitated by the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). When you start to feel your level of anxiety rising, it’s time to engage your PSNS. The act of calming your thoughts and breathing slowly helps to put it into action.

Try these steps:
  • Take some slow breaths.
  • Use positive and calming self-talk. Tell yourself, “This feeling will pass,” or “I will get through this anxiety.”
  • Visualize a peaceful place, such as a beach or inside your church. Imagine yourself there. What are the sights, sounds, and smells around you?
Focus on the current moment and allow yourself to tune out other stimuli and worries. You might be concerned that this will take time away from what you’re doing, especially if you’re taking an exam. In actuality, it can take only a minute or two to interrupt the cycle of panic and set yourself back on course. If necessary, step away from the situation and find someplace quiet, even if it’s a nearby restroom.

Here’s what you’ll notice as you relax:
  • Your breathing will slow down and you’ll be able to breathe more deeply.
  • Your heart rate will return to normal.
  • Your muscles will become less tense.
Some people find it helpful to carry an item that helps them self-soothe. These are usually small enough to fit in a pocket and in the palm of your hand. It could be a smooth stone, a note from a friend, a soft-corded necklace, or anything else that helps you feel calm and peaceful.

If you find that test anxiety is impeding your ability to study effectively or remember material on the spot, consider talking with an expert. “Exam anxiety is normal,” Rushton says. “A small amount of it [can be] healthy [if] it [helps] you study. If the anxiety is disruptive to studying or actual exam performance, then [consider] getting help [by talking to a counsellor or therapist].”

And lastly, don’t underestimate the value of getting a good night’s sleep before an exam. While cramming before a test may seem helpful, if you’re drowsy and drained the next day, you won’t be able to perform come test time.

Sleep actually helps build cognitive ability and solidify memory, so it’s necessary for being sharp on test day.

Bail believes that consistency, and completing your coursework regularly throughout the term, helps to prepare you for exams and increase your confidence. He explains, “Attend classes regularly and practice taking minutes (or notes). [You] should also [complete your] reading.” By keeping up with your class work and regularly reviewing material, you are already preparing yourself for test success.

Take Action!

  • Review course information well before a test is scheduled.
  • Study in short intervals over a longer period of time, rather than trying to cram right before a test.
  • Practice retrieving information when you study and not just storing it.
  • Get a good night’s sleep before an exam.
  • Read all test instructions carefully, and answer the easiest questions first.
  • Use stress-reduction techniques to stay calm before and during a test.
  • Talk to someone you trust if your anxiety is unmanageable.

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Amy Baldwin, EdD, is the director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas. She is the author of The Community College Experience, The First-Generation College Experience, and The College Experience, all published by Pearson.