A test can mean stress. At the push of a button, we have to perform at our best, but a real fear of exams can prevent us from performing to our full potential. It affects our psyche and can even put us under physical strain. Many physical complaints have a psychological origin. Most of us feel a certain tension before a test – and to a healthy extent, this is beneficial, but we should address any possible phobias straight away.
Many students suffer from exam anxiety. The panic often goes so far that those affected avoid exam situations altogether and therefore put their professional careers at risk. In this article, you will find effective tips for preventing and managing exam anxiety.
How does exam anxiety develop?
The most frequently affected are those who have poorly prepared for an examination or those who prepare well, but feel intense pressure. Either from themselves or externally. If exam anxiety becomes too extreme, it can lead to a total blackout. Symptoms can range from absolute panic to cold sweats, nausea, tachycardia and even intestinal problems.
Are your children affected?
Test anxiety in children can develop as early as eight years old. The cause is usually poor previous performance, which can lower self-esteem. Excessive pressure from parents can also negatively influence your child and cause a lifelong examination phobia.
If you or your child get a stomach ache and sweat at the thought of an upcoming exam, you are probably suffering from examination anxiety. Here are 7 measures to best counteract it.
1. Strengthen self-confidence.
Low self-confidence is the main issue with exam anxiety. Be satisfied with your performance. If you have prepared thoroughly, you can sit the exam with confidence.
Here’s a solid tip to strengthen self-confidence for an upcoming exam:
Think about exam situations where you were successful. Times when you passed tests and schoolwork. You’ll also be able to cope with this one! Imagine how you can master the next test with flying colours. Your inner critic must be silent; your positive self must overcome the fear:
“I can do this! I’ve learned a lot, and I’m very prepared.”
“I will do my best in the final exam. That’s enough.”
The power pose can also reduce stress and tension shortly before a test: stretch both arms into the air so that they form a V. We know this pose from athletes. Psychologist Amy Cuddy from Harvard Business School has found that body language changes hormone balance:
>> Power pose: Students who do this pose for two minutes can increase testosterone levels by up to 20%. At the same time, cortisol levels drop by up to 25%. Successful people have high levels of testosterone and low levels of cortisol.
Loser pose: In students with a loser pose (crouched posture, hanging shoulders), testosterone reduces by up to 10%, and Cortisol levels rise by up to 15%.
Are you having a blackout? Are you panicking? Then, you need to return to a relaxed state before you can safely rely on your knowledge. Honestly, this is easier said than done.
Here are four tricks you can use to outwit your subconscious:
- Take the time to breathe deeply in and out 10 times. Close your eyes, remember a recent happy moment. Now breathe in and count to 5. Breathe out deeply again in five counts. Repeat this 10 times.
- When fear arises, it helps to think: Stop! It sounds banal, but it works.
- A wonderful relaxation method is progressive muscle relaxation. Here, individual muscles are specifically tensed and then relaxed again. For example, clench your hands into a fist and then let go several times. Also very effective: deliberately wiggle your toes.
- Another trick is talking to yourself. Coach yourself – even if it feels weird at first. In moments of extreme exam anxiety, when you’re under intense pressure, your limbic system (mammal-brain) takes over. You become completely controlled by instinct and locked in for escape or combat. By speaking loudly to yourself, you activate your cerebral cortex and break through the panic attack. You can regain control and become calmer.
3. Think Positive
Control your thoughts during preparation. Draw a mental line under what you have experienced so far. A new era can begin. From now on, you will be well prepared, go relaxed into the next exam and deliver excellent results when required. What have you got to lose? How important is this one test in comparison to your whole life? Relate the situation.
Have you ever heard of a “self-fulfilling prophecy”? It is a psychological phenomenon that says our way of thinking influences our actions. If you tell yourself that you won’t pass the exam, it may happen. You give up internally – even before the actual exam. If, on the other hand, you know you’ll pass, and you’ve prepared well, these thoughts support the positive outcome. A positive attitude is, therefore, essential.
People who infect us with their own emotions. Yes, they do exist! Avoid contact with energy thieves and hyperventilators, as well as people who aggravate your test anxiety. At school age, these people are mainly classmates who struggle with tests themselves. They tell of strict examiners or topics that you have not specifically dealt with. Especially shortly before the exam, it’s more important that you take care of yourself and your well-being. A little selfishness is more than appropriate in this case.
4. Simulate Exams
Invite friends to a role-playing game to enact exams. This idea is a win-win situation for everyone: You can repeat the learning material, check your knowledge and prepare for the exam. You can practice speaking in front of other people and learn to express your new-found knowledge in your own words. Instead of talking to yourself in a quiet room, the exchange with others makes sense in several respects. Start with one person and add people later – the more participants, the better. >> Ask for information about the examination procedure.
It’s reassuring when you know exactly what’s ahead and what the examiners expect. You won’t find the exam questions obviously, but you can find out about the examination environment and process, which will help guide you on the day.
5. Study Correctly
We need to learn how to study effectively. Unfortunately, the traditional school system gives us only one learning method, from which we only minimally deviate. In foreign language teaching, for example, vocabulary is still taught in isolation and grammar rules are explained without context, while the words of a sentence remain unclear. The school system needs rethinking – that’s for sure. But you can’t wait that long. That’s why you need to create a brain-friendly way of learning for yourself at home.
Of course, different factors contribute to your learning success. One of the most important factors is the learning method. This method should be as brain-friendly as possible. The term “brain-friendly learning” was coined by management trainer and bestselling author Vera F. Birkenbihl. They are learning and teaching methods that correspond to the natural way our brains work and consequently fulfil the role our brain has: namely to take us further and make us happy. Our brain is a miracle because it performs 90% of what we do without consciously perceiving it. Especially at the beginning of the learning process, learning must, therefore, be incidental. This creates fundamental nerve tracts and the desire for MORE arises. From then on, intentional learning and teaching (e.g. explaining additional grammar rules) can take place. Details on “brain-friendly learning” can be found here.
Now, think of the classic method of learning a language: learning vocabulary and learning rules. Does it sound exciting? Does it whet your appetite for discovery or new experiences? Is it brain-friendly to learn isolated words without context? The answer is a resounding no. Birkenbihl is the founder of the Birkenbihl method for learning foreign languages. It is built on the idea of learning languages the same way we learned our mother tongue. It is forbidden to learn vocabulary. Click here to learn more about the Birkenbihl method.
>> 10-minute technique
Use the “construction” of your brain! Your brain continues to learn after each recording phase of about 7 minutes, even though you are already concentrating on entirely different things. It, therefore, makes sense to divide learning into 10-minute sessions. Splitting the time speeds up the learning process, so you reach your desired level much faster- especially compared to conventional vocabulary lists. Find out more about the 10-minute technique here.
>> First things first
Find out what content is in the exam. This material should be the focus of your exam preparation. Leave out trivialities. Talk to your teachers, trainers and classmates. Compare – What do you see as important? What do others see as important?
6. Stay calm before the test
You’re on your way to the exam, and you’re reading the most challenging chapter on the bus. Suddenly you find something you haven’t studied. Panic ensues. Sound familiar? Most recommendations are as follows: Study directly before the exam. It’s impossible to learn missed content right before the test because retaining it needs time and sleep.
However, I disagree with this opinion. I was always a well-prepared student and usually reread everything on the morning of the exam. I knew everything, but I would still go over my study notes one last time. That calmed me down and helped me go into the test feeling confident. But if you’re unprepared and then want to remember something new shortly before the test, things can go wrong, and you might worry more than necessary. Panic may arise, and the fear of exams intensifies.
7. During the exam: take your time and work in a structured way
Naturally, some tasks suit you better; others require a little more effort. Solve the simplest tasks first in written exams. This strategy gives you a good feeling in the beginning and prevents you from spending time on protracted and challenging solution tasks. For oral exams, it is vital to listen carefully, and take your time before answering. Take a deep breath and then respond calmly.
Conclusion: Exam anxiety can be alleviated.
Exam anxiety arises in our minds. If you’ve read our tips & tricks and take them seriously from now on, you’ll be more relaxed in your next exam.
In some cases, however, exam anxiety is so advanced that you may not be able to free yourself from the vicious cycle of fear, panic and blackout. In this case, we recommend seeking professional help.
 Carney/Cuddy/Yap: “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance.” (Psychological Science 21, No. 10 October 2010, p. 1363–1368).