by Carla Trujillo, Ph.D.
1. Optimal Level of Performance
We have an optimal level of performance whenever we're doing anything that requires us to demonstrate something about ourselves, whether it be knowledge, a performance, or a sport. If we are too anxious, we exceed our optimal level and perform at a poorer rate due to the inability to concentrate, reason, or remember. On the other hand, if we are not excited enough, let's say due to exhaustion, we perform below our optimal level and perform poorly for similar reasons and with similar results. Therefore, the goal of performance anxiety reduction is to keep your performance level at the optimal or middle area, where you remain alert, attentive, but not over or under stimulated.
2. Have a Back-up Plan
We must always have back-up plans. Construct back-up plans for all that you do to insure that you will still obtain your desired goal no matter what the consequences are of the test you are taking. Ask yourself what will happen if you fail this test? What will happen if you fail the class? Will you simply have to repeat the class? Will this mean that you will no longer be able to be the engineer or scientist that you were intent on becoming? Of course not. If you create a back-up plan, or a "worse case scenario," you know that you have constructed a mechanism that will insure achieving your goal no matter the outcome of a particular test.
3. Assess Your Study Skills
When studying for a class, assess your knowledge of the material. Do you understand what is being taught in class? Are you studying properly? Do you review your notes after lecture? Do you study with others or at least try to do problem sets together? Do you speak to the professor or TA if you're having any difficulties? Are you assertive about asking questions during class? Do you get extra tutoring help if necessary? Do you tape record lectures where you may be having problems?
You may need to slow yourself down while studying. Try getting a notebook with blank paper and dedicate one to each class. When you are reading your textbook, or any readings for the class, outline what you are reading in a careful and concise way. Make this outline good enough to enable you to review the outline for exam preparation in the future. Sometimes we are anxious when studying, which doesn't enable us to learn the material properly, so slowing yourself down while you read enables you to absorb the material better. Then, you get the added benefit of being able to review really good outlined notes.
4. Pretend You Are the Professor
If you were the teacher of a particular course, what questions would you ask on the test? Write down the questions you would ask if you were teaching the class. What material would like your students to know if they were taking this class from you? If you write down the topics you believe should be covered in class, chances are that you will have a 70-80% agreement with your instructor. This enables you to prepare more fully in studying for exams. Does your professor like to incorporate difficult questions using logic and analysis? If so, what kinds of questions do you expect him/her to ask? Are you ready to attempt these questions?
Keep in mind that professors always ask questions that you may have not studied or seen in lectures or reading notes. They are assessing how you analyze and process information. If you are an engineer and you're told to solve a real-life problem, chances are, you will not have seen that problem in your homework. An engineer has to tackle each problem using the analytical skills you've been learning. It's important to think clearly and systematically using logic, common sense and your accrued knowledge. Don't let these kinds of questions unnerve you. Instead, expect to get them and approach them as a challenge or a puzzle to solve. These are questions which are designed to hone your skills.
5. Positive Visualization
On the night before your exam (right before you go to sleep works well), find a quiet place to relax. Close your eyes. Pull your eyes to the top part of your head, roll up and back, then take two slow, deep breaths. Do this a couple more times to get you more relaxed. Now, visualize yourself in the classroom taking the test. See yourself receiving the test, then calmly, confidently taking the exam. You see many of the questions you had formulated while you pretended you were the professor. You are organized and alert. You are enjoying taking the test because you want to demonstrate just how much you know about the material. Create this movie in your head. You are in command and in control. Repeat the positive visualization again in the morning, right before you get out of bed. When test time comes you will have already seen yourself confidently taking the test. Refer to this personal movie anytime during the test. This positive visualization will help you realize what you are capable of achieving.
If there is anything to take with you in learning test anxiety reduction, take the breathing exercise. You can do breathing exercises at anytime, before, during, and after the test. Breathing helps you stay emotionally grounded and rids the body of excess tension. It is also an effective way of reducing stress of any kind and only takes a moment to do.
If you can, close your eyes. Inhale through your nose deeply and slowly. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Do this two to three times or whenever you feel excess anxiety building up. This is an easy and effective exercise to do throughout the test.
7. Progressive Relaxation Exercises
Progressive or isometric relaxation exercises can help offset excess energy that usually comes from anxiety or nervousness. You can do progressive relaxation before and during any part of your test. Before the test, sit outside if you can, in a relatively quiet place. If possible, close your eyes. Starting with your feet, tense the foot muscles for 5-8 seconds. Release, then take a deep breath or two. Tense the calve muscles for 5-8 seconds. Release. Repeat with the different muscle groups: upper legs, abdomen, arms/hands, shoulders, and face/jaw. Then tense your whole body and release. You can repeat this exercise in class before the exam and anytime during the test. This is a simple way to rid your body of excess energy so that you can keep your energy at an optimal performance level. If you wish, you can do isometric hand presses which are easy and offer a quick, concentrated way of releasing excess tension.
8. When the Test is Handed Out
When the test is handed out, do a quick breathing exercise if necessary. Quickly assess the test. What are the major point items on the test? What do you see expected of you on the test? Were you correct about calculating what the questions were going to be about? Try to very quickly calculate how much time you should spend per question so that you attempt to complete the test. Go for the major point items over smaller points. Work quickly and efficiently. Use your personal positive visualization "movie" to keep up your confidence and the breathing exercises to keep your energy at the optimal performance level.
9. Trust What You Know
Always rely on your knowledge and intuition. More than likely, it will be correct.
10. Recover Your Academic Self-Esteem
Go back in your memory through time and try to remember all your accomplishments since you were a child. This will refresh your memory regarding how smart you were and continue to be.
11. Bringing Yourself to Consciousness During an Exam
If, during an exam, you find yourself starting to blank out or panic, try to stop and ask yourself these questions:
- What am I doing?
- Why am I doing it?
- What am I going to do about it?
If you can come to some sense of consciousness during a moment while you are panicking or blanking out, you can possibly bring yourself to a calmer place because by recognizing what you are doing, you give yourself a sense of control. Regaining control of your thoughts and emotions during an exam is crucial to doing well. Try answering the above questions. This will hopefully put you back into a consious, rather than a panic state.
12. Learn Entitlement
If you haven't done so, learn entitlement. Entitlement is a term for recognizing your rights as an equal to anyone in society and acting on these rights. When we possess a sense of entitlement we can more readily assert ourselves, ask questions, and expect equal treatment and recognition.
13. Address Personal Issues
Consider getting counseling to deal more personally with test anxiety issues.
Last Updated: September 12, 2006 4:30 PM