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How to deal with test anxiety
In the UK, 82% of teachers believe tests and exams have more impact on the mental health of their students than anything else. While feeling anxious before an exam is a normal reaction, high levels of test anxiety can lead to a deterioration in mental health and also negatively affect exam performance. It's important to find ways to cope with and reduce the pressure.
Should we be worried about test anxiety?
"Being wobbly about exams or other tests is perfectly normal and all humans feel this way about things that are important to them," says Alison Hotchkiss, accredited BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) school counsellor.
"Being worried or nervously excited does not mean you have a mental illness. This is part of how we have evolved."
It's normal to feel anxious, whether due to self-doubt in a particular subject or general performance anxiety. However, it's important to try and find ways to reduce high levels of test anxiety.
In 2018, the National Education Union (NEU) surveyed 730 UK education staff working in early years up to college years. The results highlight the prevalence of mental health issues in schools and the importance of finding ways to help students cope with pressure.
- 82% of educators feel tests and exams have the biggest impact on the mental health of students.
- 81% of those in secondary school reported that students self-harm as a result of pressures they face.
- 45% reported students having eating disorders.
- 48% said students were having panic attacks.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
The past couple of years has seen schools across the UK close during lockdowns and end of year exams cancelled. As a result, it's been a long time since many students have been tested under exam conditions and many of them are feeling less certain about what to expect.
"Counsellors in schools are in a unique position to see the impact COVID-19 continues to have in children's worlds," says Hotchkiss. "Before the pandemic, children at least had the certainty that tests would be going ahead. Now in 2022, there is still a lot of uncertainty. What might sometimes look like apathy is in fact a community trying to deal and cope with these changes and ambivalences."
A study by education research organisation ImpactEd found that the pandemic had negatively impacted student learning and that this affected anxiety levels. Students in years 10, 11, and 13 had the lowest wellbeing scores, which may provide an insight into the increase in test anxiety levels.
Managing test anxiety
According to Hotchkiss, students who experience high levels of stress in the lead up to tests can significantly reduce their anxiety through a combination of preparation and self-care techniques.
Knowing what to expect
Good preparation isn't just about subject revision. It can also help you to know what to expect, which can be an effective way to reduce test anxiety.
- Make sure you know the essential exam details - for example, the times, the format, and the rules regarding what you can and can't bring in.
- No question is too silly to ask your teacher – for example, asking if you can take in water.
- Practise past papers – this will get you used to the question styles.
- Practise under exam conditions – this will get you used to the expected pace, to the silence, and having no distractions (such as from your mobile phone).
- If your school has no mock exams, ask your teacher to set up practice papers under exam conditions.
Remember, allowing plenty of time for subject revision sits within your control. The earlier you start, the more prepared you'll feel. Research has shown that procrastination is strongly correlated to stress and test anxiety.
- Keep a revision diary timetable and factor in rest breaks of 10-20 minutes to help keep things fresh. As well as helping to reduce stress, this helps to keep energy levels up, improve concentration, and facilitate the memorisation of new content.
- Think about the subject you're least looking forward to being tested on and start revision for this first. We tend to leave these to last which can cause more stress when faced with them closer to the test date.
- Find what revision methods work best for you – for example, if you're a visual learner you could use visual aids.
- Notice if you're procrastinating – there are steps you can take to overcome this.
- Consider when and where you can study – for example, if you don't have an appropriate space at home you could find out if your school runs study clubs.
"As your exam date approaches, remember that cramming or staying up all night is not the best approach. This can raise stress levels, your brain won't be able to take in all the new information, and sleep deprivation won't help test performance," Hotchkiss cautions.
It's important to look after yourself throughout your revision and especially in the days leading up to your test. You can do this by practising self-care that benefits both your mental and physical health.
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- Ensure you get at least 8 hours sleep – not only does this significantly improve mental health, but research shows that getting good sleep can improve academic performance by almost 25%.
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet – include lots of fruit and vegetables to ensure that it's rich in nutrients and vitamins.
- Drink plenty of water - there is lots of evidence that boosting water intake can have an impact on a young person's ability to learn.
- The night before your exam, enjoy some downtime in order to feel more refreshed, calm, and prepared – the activity is up to you, but this could involve having a hot bath, gentle exercise, or going for a walk.
- The night before, limit your caffeine intake to help set yourself up for a good night's sleep.
When you enter your exam
"It's normal to feel nervous, but if you're feeling over-anxious, try to slow down your breathing by controlling your breath as you breathe out. This slows your heart rate down which helps to bring you into a calmer state."
Mindful breathing practises are a proven technique for reducing test anxiety. They may also benefit your test performance by improving your ability to concentrate for long periods of time – a very useful ability for an exam.
Hotchkiss stresses that exams aren't everything. Of course, for many people maintaining this perspective in the lead-up to an academic test is easier said than done. However, it may help to remind yourself every now and again that you have - and can develop - a variety of skills that can carry you far in life. Having strong interpersonal skills, a positive attitude, and a good work ethic are just a few examples.
Don't forget that if you're feeling overwhelmed – whether due to academic pressure or stress in another part of your life – you don't have to be alone.
Hotchkiss encourages you to speak to an adult that you trust and respect. This could be a current or past teacher, a head of year, or a family member: "Sometimes voicing your concerns out loud can even be enough to get rid of the worry."
If you are worried about the impact of test anxiety on your mental health, there are also several UK helplines ready to provide you with support.
For young people:
- YoungMinds textline - text YM to 85258.
- Samaritans textline and email - 116123 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Childline - textline 0800 11 11, 1-2-1 counsellor chat, and online message boards.
For concerned parents:
- YoungMinds - parent helpline and webchat.
- Samaritans textline and email - 116123 and email@example.com