Gifted Students...Scared of Tests? Part 2

Wherein we answer the question: "What, exactly, can we do about test anxiety?"

Posted May 12, 2012

Oddly, perhaps, it is this last vignette that helped me think differently about my initial approach as I prepared Part Two of this article, coping effectively with test anxiety. The lawyer has no problem with “pressure”, per se; his own reputation and fortunes, as well as those of his firm and his clients rest squarely on his shoulders on a daily basis. But his sense of dread about the upcoming baseball tournament was real. His sense that there is “pressure” is the same, but it is the venue that makes that stress come alive in a different, more intimidating way. (The same could be said, I suspect, of the doctoral candidate, who is about to undergo a very high stakes set of interviews—conversations that will decide on the value of years’ worth of work.) But now let’s consider further that individual I described in the previous article (link HERE), the one who suffers from the more “garden variety” of test anxiety. He takes a test, feeling confident, but is devastated when the results do not meet expectations. This one failure leads to a sense of dread about each upcoming test in the future. On the next occasion, in fact, he feels so scattered and so unable to focus properly that he, again, does not meet his own expectations. The vicious feedback loop begins as failure leads to more failure.

The key difference between the two gifted individuals described above is that one person (some would say, ironically) doesn’t know the ultimate source of his stress, while the other does. As discussed in Part One, high levels of stress cause the critical thinking parts of the brain’s prefrontal cortex to become less effective. In this heightened state of stress, seeing through the haze is difficult;  this is made clear in both the emails I received. Because the lawyer’s anxiety is so real, neither he nor the doctoral candidate have noted that it is the “unknown element” of the event that is the real source of their stress. Arguing in courtroom? Fine, do it all the time! But playing outfield to catch a key pop-fly for the third out? Well,….

This fish-out-of-water version of “test” anxiety can affect a person’s psyche and performance just as much the type of anxiety that causes one to feel the more familiar dread of taking an exam or speaking in front of a group. But they differ in their sources…and knowing this difference, I realized as I sat to compose this blog post, is clearly a key to addressing the both types of test anxiety. So, if you feel you suffer from test anxiety, you must first:

Ask yourself this question: Which kind of stress is my keystone? Are you that “fish out of water” worrier, or are you the one who suffers from the “white coat syndrome” (discussed previously), that “dread of the familiar?” Or is it a combination of both? (Are you, for example, dreading a certain test because you simply don’t know what it is going to look like? Are you in fear of speaking in public because you don’t know the format that is expected?)

If any element of your anxiety is rooted in that “fish out of water” response, then clearly you need to:

Familiarize yourself with a particular occasion and practice for it! Go out to a ball field with a friend and catch pop-flys for an hour. Ask the professor exactly what that test will look like—multiple choice? Short answer? Essay? A combination of all the above? Ask for sample questions, get a study guide, gather your notes, your books, and form a plan to study so that you know your attack will be effective for that particular exam. Taking steps to practice for a particular occasion or a precise task builds confidence. You’ll better know later then what it feels like to have a ball come in your direction high overhead. Even if you do not know the actual writing prompt, you’ll know how to assimilate a series of diverse facts into a cohesive essay because you studied the relations of those facts with that task in mind. Of course it’s possible that you’ll be caught off guard by some unknown quantity on game day but, at the moment, before the actual event itself, you cannot anticipate this so why bother? Instead, prepare yourself according to what you do know about the event. Do not get distracted from enabling yourself in advance by getting mired down by all the “what-ifs."

If your anxiety is more the “dread of the familiar”—the kind that is genuinely based on the vicious negative feedback loop discussed above—then our approach is a little more complex and certainly more cerebral. Your job on this front is to tackle the fear of, well,… your fear. Any sports psychologist will agree that knowing how to help, say, a golfer cure the yips or a basketball player make a foul shot, begins with understanding of what causes the poor performance in the first place. In the first article of this series, we discussed this at length, the relationship between perceived stress and its effects on the brain that lead to real performance break-downs. As it turns out, the key to tackling the golfer’s yips and conquering test taking anxiety are incredibly similar: we must eliminate the negative internal dialogue that tells us “I know I’m going to screw this up” because this self-talk is not only the precursor to test anxiety, it is its very cause.

A person suffering from test anxiety is in reality reacting to what some psychologists might call ahabituated internal representation of poor test taking skills. Simply put, his fear of the test is based on notion that all other testing occasions have gone poorly so, surely, this one must too. That internal dialogue and the accompanying feelings coalesce to create the panic. If we fix change this dynamic, if we can deconstruct the way that the feelings and the performance got woven together, then we can fix the fear. To do this so that the test taking experience is optimized for success, you need to…

Take care of the body so that the mind can work effectively. It’s basic and it’s key: if your body is not at its peak, your mind cannot be at its best. Before the big day, get a good night’s sleep. (Sure, you’re nervous and you might not sleep soundly, but don’t make it worse by staying up to watch Jimmy Kimmel as a way of avoiding the stress of tomorrow!) Eat well and drink your water. Dress comfortably. Treat your body well so you’re not distracted by physiological needs/responses. Furthermore, in advance,…

Recall the last time you succeeded—or just get it out!. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was. Find that time you tried and succeeded and settle into that moment. Relive it. Breathe it in and get that feeling back, the emotions and the feel  of it. Not working? Need more help? Consider writing about it—the good and the bad. Studies have shown that those who write about their test anxieties—just getting it out!—do better on subsequent tests.

Use what you know about the test to prepare effectively. Arriving at the test only to discover you left your calculator at home is no good. We discussed the importance of preparing for what you can previously—knowing what is on the test, how it will be assessed, proper practice, etc. It needs little further explanation here but making sure that you also have all the materials you’ll need before the “big day” goes a long way in helping to keep nerves calm.

Visualize the potential positives. As you sit down, do not look ahead to failure. You’ve prepped, you’ve got this! Consciously make an effort to smile and congratulate yourself for each item you recognize from your previous preparation.

Eliminate the “what-ifs.” One unfamiliar or strange question is not an omen of more to come. Similarly, this is a single test, not a semester’s final grade! Your future does not, in fact, rest on this one essay. If you begin to panic—your thoughts begin to race, your mouth gets dry, you feel the mind beginning to blank out—breathe deep and…

Focus on the moment. Look for the trees, not the forest. Don’t look at the outcome as a whole, and do not look at the immediate event the same way either. Break the test or the task down into sections or pieces. Tackle the short answers first, then move to the multiple choice. Simply finish, one piece at a time.

Consider breaking your typical routine. Your old way of thinking tells you that you have always failed and so now you will again, as sure as Behavior X leads to Outcome Y. So change your approach! Don’t go in order of the questions on the test. Tackle the essays first while you feel fresh. Get up mid-way through the test and move to a different seat. Dress up for an exam to see if this makes you feel as if this is a new day. Part of changing the feedback cycle you’ve experienced in the past involves breaking the patterns of your behaviors. Finally, keep in mind that in the end,…

There is no instant (magical) cure to test/performance anxiety. Yes, it’s true and part of me wonders if this article will leave those who wrote me earlier feeling a bit, well, underwhelmed. Conquering test anxiety takes practice and determination, and these techniques must be practiced consistently and in advance to be effective. When positive results come—and they will—then the new feedback loop can begin, one in which effective preparation does, in fact, equal expected performance.