How College Freshmen Can Reduce Test Anxiety

It's the worry, not the physical dread, that does the damage.

Posted Nov 02, 2018

Test anxiety impacts millions of people and can be especially enhanced for college freshmen facing midterm and final exams. Midterms and first semester finals are their first real exposure to what exams are like in college versus in high school, students assume the exams will likely be more difficult than high school tests (which is usually true), and they are a student's first opportunity to evaluate the adequacy of their study methods and preparation.

Test anxiety is known to impair performance to varying degrees. However, studies have found that it is not necessarily the physical feeling of dread we tend to associate with anxiety that most contributes to poor performance. Rather, the worry about performance and the worry about having anxiety are the primary distractors.

Anxiety is different from worry in numerous ways. Anxiety is associated with a visceral feeling of dread that is vague. We fear something bad is going to happen and we experience the associated dread as physical discomfort in our bodies. Worry, on the other hand, is associated with a specific and concrete concern and we tend to experience it as thoughts in our head rather than tension or discomfort in our bodies.

Given these distinctions, a recent study tried an intervention that was successful in reducing test anxiety in college freshmen by suggesting a different way of thinking about their anxiety symptoms. Specifically, that the physical symptoms of anxiety could actually be neutral or even helpful in an exam. Indeed, being somewhat anxious might lead us to prepare more thoroughly and to take the exam more seriously.

The results of the intervention were that college student who were prone to test anxiety and received a message from their professor telling them their anxiety might be potentially useful, were less worried about their performance and about having test anxiety, and ended up performing better than test-anxiety prone students who did not receive the message and thus did not change their thinking about test anxiety,

The study also found that doing well on the first round of tests in college also reduced test anxiety for subsequent exams increasing the overall course performance for first-year students.

The takeaway here is that college freshmen should interpret visceral feelings of anxiety as potentially useful and think of them as motivators rather than distractors. Doing so will help them reframe how they think about test anxiety, manage their emotions, and reduce the worry and distraction that can otherwise impair their performance.

Copyright 2018 Guy Winch


Brady, S. T., Hard, B. M., & Gross, J. J. (2018). Reappraising test anxiety increases academic performance of first-year college students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(3), 395-406.