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Test Anxiety Part 2: The Prescription

Test Anxiety Part 2: The Prescription

In the last blog, I wrote about the different ways in which test anxiety can manifest itself in a student’s performance, so now it’s time to answer the question: what, as a success coach, can I do about it? How can I most effectively coach my students around this type of psychological boulder in the road? While there is no magic bullet, there are ways to help students overcome test anxiety.


The biggest thing I tell students about nerves/anxiety/stress when it comes to taking exams is that you’re just not going to get rid of it. Not gonna happen. The only proven way to stop being nervous about something nerve-wracking is to do it hundreds, perhaps thousands of times until it is no longer nerve-wracking. But you’re not going to be able to take that economics final hundreds of times, so just get over it! But while you may not be able to completely shut out the voice in your head that looks at the first question on an important exam and immediately screams, “All systems down! Abort mission! We’re all gonna die!” – you can learn to prevent that voice from doing you harm. The voice of the second-guesser, always telling you that maybe you don’t know what you think you know, cannot be drowned out, for then it will only try harder to shout above the din. But it can be listened to and thoughtfully ignored. You can make friends with your enemy. With some of my students, I have practiced role playing conversations out-loud with these formerly silent voices. Together, we talk about how you can acknowledge the voice telling you to flee the scene or give up or make a careless error, all while understanding that that voice is full of crazy, bad advice you should not heed. Once students realize that these thoughts can be simultaneously A) completely normal and B) completely wrong, it makes them easier to handle in the moment.


It’s a psychological phenomenon we’ve all experienced: when you believe you are winning, you are more likely to win. When you believe you are defeated, you are more likely to clench defeat from the jaws of victory. Likewise, students’ feelings of defeat or demoralization on a certain part of an exam can lead them to perform poorly even where they should excel. Therefore, I tell my students to complete exams according to their strengths. Most of the time, there’s no requirement that you answer every question of an exam in order. So if you are more confident writing essays than answering multiple choice questions, do all of the essays first or vice versa if the reverse is true. On a larger scale, this can even mean encouraging my students to let their course schedule play to their strengths. If a student is particularly anxious about test-taking, we look together at their prerequisites and course requirements to see if there isn’t a way to avoid taking courses wherein his or her entire grade is based on two tests. Of course, it’s always better to overcome your fears than to simply avoid what frightens you, but managing my fear of reptiles doesn’t mean I’ve got to throw myself into a snake pit.


I love puzzles. Crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles- you name it. Through the years, I’ve learned that there are times when you’re just gonna be stuck. You’ve looked at every piece left and none of them fit! So often what I need in this scenario is to hit pause. When I come back and look at the puzzle with fresh eyes, I’ll make a breakthrough I never could have made if I’d just kept staring. It can be the same with exams. Sometimes students are afraid to take a moment to reset out of fear of losing time, even though that’s exactly what might help them the most.


….is something a fitness instructor once said to me in the middle of a particularly grueling workout, and I’ve taken it to heart. It’s also something I remind my students who tend to want to give up when the going gets rough. For these students, the most effective tactic is often the polar opposite of “hit pause,” for they are the ones who already have one foot out the door. It’s a mantra that can help whether the grueling task in question is scheduled to last 20 seconds or 20 minutes. The most important thing is that the student knows that, at some point, this too shall pass, but if they maximize their time and just focus for a little bit longer- they, too will pass…the class.

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.

Test Anxiety Part 1: The Diagnosis

Test Anxiety Part 1: The Diagnosis

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:


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.


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.


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.