WHAT CAUSES TEST ANXIETY?   back

The University of Alabama
Center for Academic Success
124 Osband
348-5175

Test anxiety is more common than most students realize, and the symptoms are the same for almost all students who experience it. The following is a typical scenario:

As you enter the classroom you are aware that you are nervous, your heart is beating faster and that your muscles are tense. By the time the test is handed out your hands are cold and clammy, your heart is pounding and you feel very anxious. You wonder if you have studied enough and believe that those around you probably know the material better than you do. You would like to leave the room and study for just a few minutes more. You begin to feel that you have lost the ability to remember what you studied the night before. When reading the test questions, concepts that you know the day before no longer make sense. You cannot remember what words mean or you cannot remember how to work the problems. You experience a mental block. Your mind refuses to work and you feel frustrated, upset, and even though you try to relax, nothing seems to work. After the text an amazing thing happens: everything that you could not remember suddenly comes back to you. You become angry with yourself because you could not think properly during the test.

The physical aspects of test anxiety are biological, consisting of hormonal, chemical, and muscular changes in the body. The by-product of this condition is interference with the thinking process. The physical symptoms can include muscle tension, "butterflies," nausea, shortness of breath, clammy hands, rapid heartbeat, and feeling faint. When these symptoms are present, basic thinking processes like remembering, analyzing, and problem solving are affected. That is the reason that students who experience test anxiety feel that their brain is just not working right.

The biological state of fear or anxiety occurs in response to a perceived threat. The purpose of this biological reaction is to keep the body vigilant, ready to run or fight if necessary. This is the so-called "fight or flight" response that was necessary for humans thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, this primitive biological response can cause problems in today's society. A person's natural reaction is to run away from, or avoid a perceived threat. This is not possible in a college classroom, and being required to remain in the presence of a perceived threat (the test) can only increase the symptoms. The physical symptoms and anxiety become a vicious cycle from which the person cannot escape. If the anxiety becomes too great, a person's brain will in effect shut down. This is the body's way of dealing with an intolerably high level of stress that cannot be removed.

In addition to the physical reactions to anxiety, there is a mental component at work as well. Anxiety can be created by a person's expectations concerning what is likely to happen. These expectations may be expressed in words to oneself, mental pictures, or physical symptoms. If a student believes, for example, that he or she is going to perform poorly, has not studied enough, or will appear foolish, that person will have an emotional reaction consistent with that expectation. The mental state of the student produces a corresponding emotional reaction.

Avoidance is a typical behavior pattern of students who experience test anxiety. Most students who experience test anxiety also have a problem with procrastination. They often avoid studying, and then a day or two before the test they start to worry that they have not studied enough. Procrastination also leads to last-minute cramming, which can result in the information becoming disorganized in the student's brain. This pattern of avoidance leads to a vicious cycle: Procrastination leads to last minute cramming, which leads to leads to anxiety, which leads to self-doubts, which leads to excessive anxiety during a testing situation, which may lead to the inability to remember or think logically.

In addition to feeling unprepared, text anxiety may result from concern about how others will view you if you do poorly. Students who experience test anxiety tend to be the type of people who put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform well. They often have unusually high expectations for themselves and, many times, have been very good students in the past. When these students begin to experience low grades for the first time—usually in college—their self-image of themselves as a smart person begins to erode. They then put pressure on themselves to perform better, but oftentimes put off studying longer than they should. This may begin a cycle of self-doubts and irrational beliefs that can result in high anxiety levels during testing situations.

In conclusion, test anxiety is the result of many interrelated beliefs and experiences. Ineffective study methods, and procrastination can lead to anxiety and a lowered self-image. Poor performance in a course can lead to increased pressure on oneself, especially if the outcome of a test or of a course is very important. A single experience of extreme test anxiety can leave a student uncertain if it will occur again. The good news for students who experience test anxiety is that it may be easily overcome if one is willing to follow some guidelines and practice some well-established techniques. See the handout Dealing With Test Anxiety for an explanation of these procedures.