3 research-based strategies for overcoming test anxiety

A little nervousness about exams is perfectly normal,  and sometimes can even help performance by encouraging students to pay close attention and focus on the problems in front of them.Academic Testing Anxiety
However, for many students, the anxiety that they feel on tests is anything but beneficial. 
Some students feel so nervous when they sit down to take exams that they have a hard time remembering the information they have studied.
Instead of focusing on the questions in front of them, a large part of their working memory is pre-occupied with worries about whether they are moving through the test quickly enough or getting enough problems right, and fears about what will happen if they do not do well.
Like a computer that freezes when it has too many energy-intensive programs running, students’ brains can freeze up during exams, making it hard to process or respond to the questions in front of them.
If your teen experiences test anxiety, or would simply like to go into their tests feeling more confident and prepared, there are a number of research-based strategies they can use to prepare themselves to perform more effectively on their tests.
Here are three of my favorites!
1. Write about your stress
Before high-stakes tests, students will often try to ignore or downplay their feelings, and pretend that they are not worried. 
However, research suggests that acknowledging their feelings and taking time to express them can actually help boost their performance on these tests.
Psychologists found that asking students to take 10 minutes before a high-pressure test to write  as openly as possible about their thoughts and feelings regarding the upcoming test performed significantly better than students who did not write about their thoughts & feelings, or who wrote about an unrelated, unemotional event. (Ramirez et al. 2011)
For students who are feeling anxious or nervous about a high-stakes test, getting their worries out of their head and onto paper can allow them to externalize these thoughts, and make it easier to let go of them and free up their working memory to focus on the task at hand.
One extra step that they did not do in this initial study but that I like to recommend to my students is to take a moment after they have finished writing to rip up the paper and imagine the worries  dissolving and disappearing as they toss the paper fragments into the trash.
This is a quick intervention that students can do before their test, either before they leave the house in the morning, while riding to school, or during a lunch break or study hall immediately before their exam period. 
2. Strike a Power Pose
In Amy Cuddy’s TED talk, she shares research about how “Power Posing” can reduce stress and improving confidence in high-stress situations: http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
In her studies, research participants who adopted “high power” postures for 2 minutes felt more powerful and performed significantly better in high-pressure situations than participants who adopted “low power” postures.
In addition to affecting feelings and behavior, these high-power poses also affected participants’ hormone levels, lowering their cortisol (stress) hormone, and increasing their level of testosterone, which affects feelings of confidence and assertiveness.
Most of the research on power poses has focused on its effects in high-pressure social situations, like job interviews, rather than performance on high-stakes tests.  
However, the underlying idea — that changing our postures and facial expressions can affect our emotions and behavior — is well-documented, and the feedback Amy has received after the TED talk suggests that students who use power posing to prepare for tests are experiencing great results.  
For example, here is one letter she received from a high school physics teacher: 
“I introduced my AP Physics students to power posing last spring. One student in particular was always so nervous during assessments and therefore her test scores did not represent her abilities at all. We all know that old saying about correlation and causation — and this was no scientific study — but from that day forward that student power posed before every physics test and her grades went from high ‘C’s and low ‘B’s to where she belonged — in the mid to lower ‘A’s. I’m convinced that power posing helped her even if it is difficult to prove.”
This is anecdotal evidence, and we can’t conclusively prove (yet!) that these poses impact students’ performance across the board on high-stakes tests.  But standing in a power pose for 2 minutes during your bathroom break before a test is such an easy intervention to try, I would encourage any student who feels anxious before a test to do their own personal experiment with this approach, by giving it a try and seeing how it works for them!
3. Turn your nervousness into excitement
When students are feeling nervous before a test, the advice they typically hear before a test is to try to relax and calm down.
But recent research suggests that — rather than telling students to stay calm before a test — we should actually be telling them to get excited.
In her book The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal shares findings from an interesting study where researchers instructed one group of students immediately before their tests to “try to remain calm” and told another group of students to “try to get excited”.
The students who were instructed to get excited did significantly better on their tests than the students who were asked to stay calm. 
This might seem like a surprising finding, but it makes sense if you think about how calm, anxious, and excited feelings are related to one another.
If you draw these emotions on a graph, nervousness is at the negative high-energy quadrant and calm is in the positive low-energy quadrant.  
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These are such different emotions, it is challenging (if not impossible) for most people to go from being stressed out and anxious to completely calm and relaxed…especially when they are still in the middle of a high-stress situation. 
In fact, sometimes this advice to stay calm can actually backfire, because when students try to calm down and find that they can’t, they may actually start to get anxious about not being able to relax, and and worried about how their nervousness is going to impact their performance…which takes even more of their attention away from the test itself.
In contrast, it is much easier to leap from one high-energy emotion to another, and go from nervousness to excitement.  This is why sometimes standing in line for a roller coaster you can feel a blend of the two feelings… a little nervous, and a little excited. 
So next time your teen is going into a high-stakes test, try encouraging them to get excited, have fun, and enjoy themselves…rather than telling them to stay calm & relaxed.
Not only could this help improve their performance, it can help them enjoy the test-taking experience more, too!
Questions to consider:
  • Which of these three research-based strategies do you think would be most useful for helping your kids overcome test anxiety and perform more confidently on their tests?
  • Can you think of any situations in which YOU might benefit from applying these strategies yourself?  (Before important meetings, big presentations, performance evaluations, etc?) Trying out these approaches yourself, and talking with your kids about the experience, can be a great way to introduce your teens to these concepts!

If either you or your kids get an opportunity to try out these strategies, I would love to hear what you notice, and how it affects your performance in high-stress situations!

Please post a comment on the blog below to share your experience, or feel free to email me anytime at maggie@creatingpositivefutures.com
  • Ramirez, G. et al. (2011). Writing about Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom. Science 331, 211.
  • Brooks, A.W. (2014). Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 143, No. 3, 1144–1158.
  • Cuddy, A.J.C. et al. (2015). Preparatory power posing affects nonverbal presence and job interview performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 100(4), 1286-1295.
By |May 13th, 2016|Categories: Mindset, Study skills|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit http://creatingpositivefutures.com/contact or email support@creatingpositivefutures.com

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