Test-Taking Anxiety: What It Is + How To Fight It


At UCLA, especially with the quarter system, we’re stuck in what seems like an endless storm of midterms and finals. This sometimes gets the best of us by breeding test-taking anxiety. But what exactly does test-taking anxiety entail? This article delves into the hows and whys of test-taking anxiety while providing meaningful and realistic ways to combat it.


what is test-taking anxiety?

As the name implies, test-taking anxiety is the anxiety that comes with taking tests. Although some amount of stress and anxiety before a test can help one stay alert during an examination, test-taking anxiety becomes a problem when it starts interfering with a student’s overall well-being. Test-taking anxiety has the potential to affect people of all ages, including middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, and even employees who have to take tests for career advancement purposes. Test-taking anxiety can also come about for different types of examinations, including high-impact standardized tests such as the SAT and other assessments such as driving tests.


Since exams form such a core part of a student’s life, many students experience test-taking anxiety at one point or another in their education. In fact, the American Test Anxieties Association reports that 20% of students have high test-taking anxiety and that another 16% have moderately high test-taking anxiety. [1]


Common symptoms of test-taking anxiety include rapid heart rate, high breathing rate, nausea, impaired concentration, headaches, racing thoughts, and feelings of being “on edge.” When the anxiety is more extreme, serious symptoms such as insomnia might also occur. [2]


why does test-taking anxiety occur?

On the most fundamental level, test-taking anxiety exists because as students, we are typically required to take examinations that 1) are used as institutional markers of success and 2) play an important role in determining our futures. Since many classes at UCLA are curved, high grades are capped and an implicit comparison is made among different students. Students then start pitting themselves against each other and fall prey to comparative thinking (i.e. “I’m not as smart as someone who scored better than me on this test”) and, as a result, start to feel badly about themselves and their abilities. [2]

Students can also develop test-taking anxiety when they feel as though they have prepared to the best of their ability but still do not perform at the level they expected. Other times, parental pressure acts as a direct trigger for test-taking anxiety. For example, a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Psychological Studies examined the impact of parental socioeconomic status and pressure on student test-taking anxiety. The authors concluded that there is a significant positive correlation between parental pressure and test-taking anxiety. [3] That is, parents with high socioeconomic status who come from traditionally prestigious occupations such as law and medicine tend to have children with higher levels of test-taking anxiety. Students may develop test-taking anxiety due to their desire to perform well in order to meet their parents’ expectations.


effects of test-taking anxiety

interferences with academic performance

One of the most direct effects of test-taking anxiety is the inability to perform well. In fact, according to the American Test Anxieties Association, high test-taking anxiety often reduces working memory, confuses reasoning, increases mistakes, and lowers test scores. Students with high test-taking anxiety perform below their peers who do not have anxiety, and this is typically because students with high test-taking anxiety may not be performing at a level that demonstrates their true competence. [1]

interferences with learning

Test-taking anxiety might also interfere with learning in general. A 2004 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology examined the effects of test-taking anxiety on students’ memory and test performance. Researchers concluded that test-taking anxiety interferes with learning through deficiencies in the retention and retrieval of information from previously stored memories. This suggests that learning environments in which a student is or will eventually be required to take a high-anxiety test might not be the most conducive to long-term learning. [4]

Interestingly, up and coming computerized tests seem to have a negative effect on the academic performance of those who have test-taking anxiety. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Education and Training Studies suggests that the computer-adaptive test (CAT), a testing method proposed by the Common Core, may not accurately capture a student’s abilities because it does not validly represent the skills of those with test-taking anxiety. [5]

interferences with self-esteem

The effects of test-taking anxiety manifest themselves in other aspects of academic performance as well. A 2015 study published in the British Journal of Arts and Social Sciences used both qualitative and quantitative statistical methods to evaluate the relationship between test-taking anxiety and academic achievement. Researchers involved in the study concluded that there is a strong negative correlation between test scores and test-taking anxiety. Furthermore, the study suggested that students with test-taking anxiety generally have far lower levels of self-esteem, revealing just how much of a toll test-taking anxiety can take on an individual’s morale. [6]


how to combat test-taking anxiety

To deal with test-taking anxiety, one should first try to determine why exactly one has this anxiety. Test-related anxiety comes in many forms, but its root causes are usually feelings of underpreparedness, negative comparisons with others who might seem more accomplished, fear of failure, and poor test performance history.


To reduce test-taking anxiety, students can feel free to participate in activities that are relaxing, such as yoga and meditation, so as to ease their minds and ensure that they are at peace with themselves. A study discussed in a 2010 review in the Eastern Education Journal examined test-taking anxiety in primary, secondary, and high school students. The study concluded that students who received relaxation training experienced less test-taking anxiety after the treatment, while students in the control group showed no changes in test-taking anxiety. [7]

establish a pre-test routine

Test-takers might also want to establish a pre-test routine, something they could do just before a test to relax themselves, because this can help them get their minds into “the zone” just before taking a test. Some common pre-test routines include meditation, going on a run before a big exam, and sleeping and waking up at the same time before every test. Stress levels tend to decrease when the student goes into a test after having been in a comfortable and familiar setting. [7]

prepare beforehand

Interestingly, it seems that sometimes, test-taking anxiety can be dealt with—or at least reduced—the moment a student receives a test. One 2014 study from Applied Cognitive Psychology asked students to look through all the problems on a test and allow the questions to sink in before starting to solve the first problem. The study found that when students looked through all the problems in detail before starting to write, their anxiety levels generally decreased. [8]

Finally, test-takers should also get enough food, water, and sleep. It goes without saying that a healthy physical body will allow you to perform as well as you possibly can!


bottom line

At the end of the day, test-taking anxiety is best dealt with by engaging in activities that can help you relax and get you into “the zone” before an exam. Focus on activities that make you happy, and don’t be afraid to seek help and talk to your professors if you are struggling with the material. Don’t psych yourself out and let past failures define your future performance. Believe in yourself, go into every test with confidence, and be on your way to performing to the best of your ability!


References ▾

  1. "American Test Anxieties Association: Is It Serious?" amtaa.org. (n.d.).
  2. “Test Anxiety: Symptoms.” adaa.org. (n.d.).
  3. “Impact of Parent’s Socioeconomic Status on Perceived Parental Pressure and Test Anxiety among Chinese High School Students.” Int J Psychol Stud. (2012).
  4. “The impact of cognitive test anxiety on text comprehension and recall in the absence of external evaluative pressure." Appl Cog Psychol. (2004).
  5. "Test Anxiety, Computer-Adaptive Testing and the Common Core.” J Educ Train Stud. (2013).
  6. "Test Anxiety, Self-Esteem, Gender Difference, and Academic Achievement: The Case of the Students of Medical Sciences at Sudanese Universities: (A Mixed Methods Approach)." Brit J Art Soc Sci. (2015).
  7. “Effective Interventions on Test Anxiety Reduction: A Meta-Analysis.” Eastern Educ J. (2010).
  8. “A Quick and Easy Strategy to Reduce Test Anxiety and Enhance Test Performance.” Appl Cog Psychol. (2014).

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