Test Anxiety – When Your Mind Goes Blank
Brian, one of my clients and a high school senior, had a serious problem with tests. He did his homework. He even helped other students. But when he walked into a test, his mind went blank.
All those lectures, readings, and practice problems vanished from his mind. He would start to worry. As the clock ticked on, his anxiety increased. He would finally force himself to focus, get through some of the problems, and end up with a mediocre score.
Eventually he concluded what seemed to be obvious: "I'm not very good at tests."
Blanking out on tests is a classic sign of test anxiety.
Anxiety works in circles
Test anxiety interferes with both memory and performance. The more anxious you are, the harder it is to remember. And the harder it is to remember, the more anxious you get. The process goes in circles.
Anxiety works as part of a feedback loop that generates its own momentum. Once you have an experience of test anxiety, your brain is on alert. You wonder, "what if it happens again?" Along with that comes anxiety or nervousness, which in turn increases the physical symptoms of tension: shallow breathing, increased heartbeat, and difficulty focusing.
With a past experience of anxiety, your brain can be easily nudged into fight-or-flight mode. In that mode, memory is disrupted.
There are many techniques to reduce test anxiety, but it's not always easy to know which ones will work, in which order, and in which combination. It's a complex problem.
Sometimes direct doesn't work: story of a rescue
Complex problems take creativity and bit of patience to solve. Often the best solution isn't clear at first, and you have to try several.
In October 2010, rescue workers in Chile struggled with a different complex problem. Thirty-three miners were trapped for 68 days in an underground mine. They were alive, but their exit was blocked.
The direct solution was to drill straight through to them, but they couldn't. The direct solution would dislodge a ton of rock that the miners would have to dig through.
But drilling at an angle meant risking that the new tunnel would itself collapse.
There were a lot of ideas, and at first it was impossible to tell which of them would work. The rescuers decided to pick the three most promising and try them all.
There is no perfect place to start
The good news is that a combined approach can work well. With the right intervention, cycles can be changed. Cycles feed on themselves, so a new response at several points can often disrupt the existing cycle.
Most people with test anxiety have already tried to make changes. Before they come to my office, my clients have tried ignoring the problem, distracting themselves from the worry, giving themselves pep talks, cramming before tests, hiring a tutor, and extra studying.
Only the last two help, and often they are not enough. I've been there. I struggled with blank-mind test anxiety in high school and college.
Changing your study habits and skills might be important, or you might already be good at those things. But text anxiety is a complex problem that happens deep in your brain. And the real key to ending it is to rescue your confidence. And that kind of rescue happens in stages.
Plan for the unexpected
In Chile, the rescuers had to work in stages. Trying to make too much happen too quickly was counterproductive. They had to make a smaller tunnel before they could make a bigger one. Even when things were progressing well, they had to handle the unexpected – a broken drill, and the 700 tons of dirt dislodged by the drilling process.
The rescue operation took a psychological toll as well. It turned out that the biggest challenge was not keeping the miners fed and hydrated, but keeping their morale up - helping them maintain their confidence.
Build a new cycle
Test anxiety is a complex circle of thoughts, feelings, physical responses, and of course confidence. When you're trying to change the cycle, you need to intervene on each of these levels.
You will want a way to relax your muscles and calm your breathing. You'll probably need some tools to address the negative thoughts about tests and perhaps about yourself. It helps to include tools to release some of the anxiety and worry before the test even starts. And of course you'll need a carefully crafted program for study.
While you're creating your test-anxiety rescue plan, it's helpful to keep the following principles in mind:
- Plan for the unexpected. Like the Chilean rescuers, you might run into obstacles. It might be surprising to know that most tests are predictable, once you understand tests. Meanwhile you might find an obstacle in the form of a topic you didn't expect, a question you don't understand, or even a change in location. Have a specific plan for how you will handle each of these.
- Always have a backup. The miners couldn't know in advance which of their methods would succeed, so they tried several. You'll need ways to relax your body, calm your thoughts, and soothe your emotions. And you'll probably want a variety of tools to choose from before, during, and after the test.
- Be persistent. Change doesn't have to take forever, but it might take longer than you expect. Like the miners, persistence is a key part of a rescue strategy. Expect a little relief from each new strategy, and to get more skilled at the psychology of test-taking over time.
- Focus on confidence as well as competence. The miners' confidence was as important as the rescue effort. For test-anxiety, rebuilding confidence is key to stopping the cycle. Fortunately, success builds confidence. As you get better at your test-taking skills, your confidence goes up, which helps you hold on to the new strategies.
Brian and I worked together for a semester. He learned to stay calm before tests, make better guesses about what would be on them, and study more effectively. During tests, he was able to focus more easily. Unexpected questions didn't throw him off because he had a plan. The blank-mind problem faded and his scores improved.
Tests can open doors. Whether it's quizzes, midterms, or college entrance exams, how well you do can enhance or limit your options. Fortunately, all students can learn to take tests with more confidence and ease.