You can be thirty years removed from your school days and still have them- the dreams. It’s the day of the test, but you’ve forgotten all about it until you’re walking to class and suddenly it hits you like a Mack truck. Or you think you’re really going to ace this one until you receive your exam and it’s about a completely different subject! Or the questions are written in ancient Greek! Whether we thought of ourselves as naturally “good” test takers or “bad,” those sweat-inducing dreams are a testament to the power of test anxiety.
I have worked with many students whose anxiety in regards to test taking has been a particular boulder in the road. Sometimes it’s the anxiety about the anxiety that’s the biggest barrier to change, as can be the case with students who walk into my office for the first time all but wearing an “I’m just a bad test taker” sign emblazoned on their t-shirts. These are the students who have so internalized the idea that they are just “bad at tests” that, to them, it’s as fixed a part of their identity as the color of their skin. In the words of Lady Gaga, they have come to believe they were just born this way.
All test anxiety, of course, originates in the psyche. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves when the gun goes off and the race is on. In my experience, these psychological issues can be boiled down into three basic test taking experiences:
1. THE FREEZE
This happens most often to the kind of Type-A, perfectionistic student who is terrified of being wrong. She cannot make a decision on something like a multiple choice question unless she is 100% certain it is the correct one, and so she spends a lot of time making no decision at all. The freeze can also hinder the performance of the student who does not trust his instincts. Who, even when he as studied the material in depth, sees a potential trap in every question, always assuming that the test is smarter than he is and is therefore out to bring him down through trickery and deceit. This student can spend so much time trying to discern how a question or essay prompt is not as it seems that he can also become paralyzed with indecision as to how to proceed in answering it.
2. THE OUT OF BODY EXPERIENCE
These are the students who can walk out of a test with almost no memory of what just happened. There’s a disconnect between the part of their brain trying to take the test and the part that is worrying about how important and scary and difficult it all is. While one voice is calmly trying to complete a math problem, the other is running around with its hair on fire shouting, “this is 50% of my semester grade! If I don’t pass this I’ll flunk out of school and the rest of my life will be terrible and I’ll die broke and alone in a gutter having never found love!” These are the students who, because their anxiety is prohibiting them from truly focusing, can forget formulas they’ve known for years or make careless mistakes they are not even aware of at the time.
3. THE SYSTEM SHUT DOWN
These are the students, not dissimilar to those “freezers” who experience a crisis of confidence, who can get overwhelmed by a test and just shut down. One difficult part can lead them to doubt their ability to tackle something later on that might be much easier. This often happens to students who truly are underprepared for an exam, either because they didn’t study or because they are having trouble understanding the material. These students are probably not going to ace the exam under the circumstances, but they decide too quickly that difficulty with something about the test means it will be impossible for them to successfully complete anything– so they just give up. These students are justifiably frustrated, but what they don’t realize is that with some mental re-framing and a little persistence, they could turn a D into a C or a C into a B. And as GPAs go, every little bit counts.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.