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From Fear to Focus: Strategies for Overcoming Exam Anxiety

In part 1 of this series – From Fear to Focus: Acknowledging the Reality of Exam Anxiety – we explored the universal experience of exam anxiety and its contributors. We described the interconnected nature of these contributors, and how peoples’ experiences with exam anxiety are based on their own unique beliefs and triggers.

Identifying the personal beliefs and behaviors that contribute to exam anxiety is an essential first step. Taking this step allows individuals to begin developing strategies for facing exams with confidence.

Strategies for Overcoming Exam Anxiety

While the strategies that follow are loosely aligned with the contributors described in part 1 of this series, like the contributors they are all interconnected and so can all be applied as needed.

Feeling unprepared:
  • Get to know the syllabus. The course syllabus outlines the expected learning outcomes, what source material(s) the exam is based on, and the exam format (duration, types of questions, etc.). This clarity can help students align their study efforts with the exam requirements.
  • Complete pre-class assignments. Pre-class assignments are typically designed to familiarize students with the course materials and lay a foundation that can be built upon in class. By coming to class prepared, students can clarify any confusion, ask informed questions, and deepen their understanding of the material while in class through active engagement with the instructor and their peers.
  • Progress iteratively with feedback. Despite it being a widespread practice, research suggests that cramming, or intensive last-minute studying, is less effective than spacing out study sessions and revisiting information at intervals. An iterative approach that includes learning, review, assessment, and reinforcement helps to enhance comprehension, strengthen memory retention, and counteract the forgetting curve.
  • Chunk it up. Breaking down study material into smaller chunks can help alleviate feelings of overwhelm and make studying more manageable. Use the syllabus to create a study plan. Prioritize topics based on importance, difficulty, and the number of related questions that will be on the exam.
  • Put it on your calendar. Recognize that there is a difference between needing more time to study and taking the time to study. As soon as you sign up for a class, block out time on your calendar for pre-class work, the class itself, homework, and final exam preparations. Try to prevent people from scheduling meetings or deadlines over top of your study time and do not try to simply tack it on to an already busy week.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Taking sample or mock exams can help students better understand the nature and format of the questions that will be on the live exam. Use any rationales that are provided to understand not only the correct answer but also why the incorrect answers are wrong. Tying practice questions back to the syllabus can help students identify the key concepts and topics that are likely to be tested on the exam.
Fear of failure:
  • Get used to being uncomfortable. Learning takes us out of our comfort zone and while it may seem counterintuitive, we often learn most from failure. Whether getting a question wrong on a study aid or practice exam, or struggling to understand a concept in class, accepting failure as a natural part of the learning process is a crucial aspect of exam preparation. Embracing failure
    empowers students to persevere, seek feedback, and refine their thinking, leading to less exam anxiety and greater success.
  • View failure as a learning opportunity. When students encounter challenges or make mistakes in class or while answering practice questions, they are given the opportunity to identify areas of weakness, discover misconceptions, and ask for clarification from their instructor. Isn’t it better to make a mistake in class or on a practice test than on the live exam?
  • Use positive reinforcement. Reward yourself for small accomplishments and milestones achieved during your study sessions. Celebrating progress, even if that involves identifying and correcting a flaw in thinking or filling a knowledge gap, can help provide motivation to continue studying and build confidence heading into the exam.
  • Strive for success. Instead of fixating solely on achieving flawless results, perfectionists can reframe their definition of success by setting realistic goals and focusing on progress rather than perfection. By acknowledging that perfection is not always achievable or necessary, perfectionists can learn to view passing the exam (regardless of their score) as a significant accomplishment.
  • Accept imperfection. Everyone (not just perfectionists) can benefit from maintaining a healthy perspective, prioritizing self-compassion, and celebrating even small victories. Aiming for excellence while accepting imperfection and recognizing that mistakes are a normal part of the learning journey is a far more sustainable and fulfilling approach to all aspects of life.
Negative self-talk:
  • Challenge negative thinking. Whenever negative thoughts or self-doubt creep in, challenge them with positive affirmations and rational thinking. For example, replace "I’m not good at taking exams.” with "I’m ready. Let’s do this!" Remind yourself of past successes and of the efforts that you have taken to prepare for success.
  • Practice visualization. Imagine yourself feeling confident and calm during the test and visualize yourself succeeding on the exam. This technique can help reduce anxiety and boost self-confidence by mentally rehearsing positive outcomes.
General anxiety:
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques are an invaluable part of a daily routine to help manage stress and anxiety. Deep breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, stretching, progressive muscle relaxation, and spending time in nature can all help calm your body and your mind, allowing you to approach taking an exam with a sense of calm and focus.
  • Stay healthy. Taking care of your physical health, particularly in the days leading up to an exam, will also benefit your mental well-being. Practices such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, and engaging in exercise and relaxation techniques can all benefit both your body and mind. Try also to avoid excessive caffeine and sugar as they can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and contribute to jitteriness.
  • Seek support. Never be afraid to reach out for support if you are struggling with exam anxiety. Talk to your instructor, classmates, friends, or family members about your feelings and concerns. Sometimes, simply expressing your worries aloud can help alleviate some of the pressure you are feeling.
Navigating exam anxiety can be daunting, but it is essential to remember that you are not alone in this experience. Exams have a unique way of evoking nerves and apprehension, but they also offer valuable opportunities for learning and growth. By acknowledging the reality of exam anxiety and understanding its underlying causes, individuals can begin to cultivate a more positive and empowering mindset. Embracing discomfort, challenging negative self-talk, and reframing perfectionistic tendencies are just a few of the strategies that can help you overcome exam anxiety and approach exams with confidence.

Remember, success is not defined solely by your exam score, but by your determination, resilience, and willingness to learn from both successes and setbacks. With the right mindset and support systems in place, you have the power to conquer exam anxiety and thrive both academically and professionally.

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