All students have attitudes about and reflexes toward taking tests. In the college student, these are acquired over many years' experiences with testing, leading to conditioning of thought, emotion and behavior. If students are not aware of these factors they will influence their responses to exams and control them, sometimes unconsciously. Fortunately, just as behavior can be conditioned so it can be unconditioned, if you will. But it takes knowledge, practice and skill. Anyone can learn these skills and that is the good news.
First, beware of negative attitudes such as pessimism, magnification, catastrophic thinking and fatalism. These thought patterns will diminish performance before the test even begins. So check yourself for "stinking thinking" well ahead of the exam, such as when you are in class and during study.
In order to manage thoughts, we must increase awareness of negative thinking and actively combat those patterns when they are detected. Here are some examples:
- Pessimism: these are thoughts of doom and gloom about testing or performance. Address these by countering with “I am qualified to be in this program and if I work hard enough I will do well enough.”
- Magnification: thoughts like this magnify the importance of an exam way beyond what is healthy. Respond with “This is one exam among many and it is no more or less important than the others.”
- Catastrophic thinking: this form of thought leads one to believe life as we know it will be over if we don't do well on a test. Counter with “One way or another everything is going to work out OK.” (This is absolutely true, by the way).
- Fatalism: these are thoughts that we will get the same outcomes no matter what we do. Address this with “My effort counts. Good preparation will get good results.”
Say them aloud when you can, and to yourself when you can't. Repeat them, over and over again, even if you question or doubt them. Remember, you are working on reconditioning your thinking in ways that promote good performance, not dismantle your confidence. Some find it helpful to place colored stickers in places which will remind you of positive thinking, such as a backpack, notepad, refrigerator, or mirror. A colored bracelet can also serve the same purpose.
The second part of test mastery involves managing anxiety. This step is highly important as anxiety interferes with higher cortical processing. Students who "go blank" during exams often have so much anxiety that it blocks access to memory. Negative experiences with exams sometimes condition people to have anxiety reactions before, during and after them. But this too can be undone if you work on it.
- The single best antidote to test anxiety is good preparation. There are no shortcuts here! See my earlier post on study habits and skills for more information on this topic.
- Don’t defeat yourself through negative habits related to eating, sleeping, and partying. You must get enough of each, but not too much! We perform at our best when our bodies are appropriately nurtured.
- Avoid “anxious talk” and anxiety-provoking situations. There is no point in asking classmates last-minute questions, or in participating in hallway comparisons before the exam. There's always someone who will say things like "I studied for 48 hours straight!", or "I'm going to ace this one just like I did the last one." Statements like these can make us feel bad, even if there's no truth to them at all.
- Learn to manipulate your physiological anxiety response through focused attention and controlled breathing, both before and during exams. A psychologist can help you learn these skills.
- Follow the principles of exposure and desensitization. This means placing yourself in situations similar to testing, repeatedly and long enough to experience a reduction in anxiety.
- Practice testing, engage in testing rehearsal, and engage in actual test-taking in the same or similar environments. Many benefit from taking a practice test in the same room where the actual test will occur. Obviously, one must have the instructor's approval for this.
- Understand your degree of reactivity. If it is very high, medication may be needed, but NEVER by itself. A little therapy will maximize the benefits of the medication, and help you address issues on your own once you stop taking it.
With some effort and practice you can condition yourself to think positively and remain calm and focused during exams. This gives your brain a good shot at accessing memory and performing well when it counts. So go get 'em!