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The Quad: Test anxiety happens, but there are techniques students can use to alleviate it

(Cody Wilson/Daily Bruin staff)

By Alexandra Grace Bell

March 3, 2020 5:45 p.m.

You take a seat in the large lecture hall, knowing you’ve prepared well for the exam: You completed your study guide, memorized your flashcards and read over your notes. It’s time to take the test.

These measures, of course, can help you do well on your exam. However, they are not the only factors that will impact your success.

Throughout the quarter, GPA can be affected by more than just hours logged on Quizlet: Levels of anxiety, self-perception and confidence can make all the difference between an A or a B, or perhaps between a pass or a fail. With final exams looming, it is important to consider how we can effectively manage our performance.

A 2018 study from the National College Health Association states that 63% of college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety in the preceding year. Anxiety can affect quality of life, including decreased performance and lower self-esteem.

However, despite the clear negatives that come with it, some anxiety is a natural part of test-taking.

In 1908, scientists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson proposed a relationship between arousal, stress and performance. This relationship is called the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

Alan Castel, a UCLA psychology professor who focuses on cognitive psychology, says there’s an optimal amount of anxiety.

“As you increase arousal, performance increases to a certain point, and then it starts to decline,” Castel said. “So you want to kind of hit that sweet spot.”

Essentially, you need at least some anxiety as motivation, Castel said. Castel structures his class with this understanding, giving graded quizzes every week but no final exam.

As someone that has struggled with anxiety my whole life, this law explains much of my successes and failures. When I tell people about my anxiety, many people say something along the lines of, “Don’t worry so much” or, “You should care less.” However, this advice does not actually make any of the things you have to do go away, and at the end of the day, I still need to excel in my classes to get into medical school.

Instead, I channel my anxiety as a motivation to do well. Good Therapy released a list of ways to turn your anxiety into something positive, including accepting the inevitability of anxiety and confronting the fear your anxiety stems from.

Sometimes, I spend more time panicking than actually starting my work. If you’re feeling stressed, take time to calm yourself down, go for a run, or practice self-care.

To-do lists can help, too. According to a 2011 study, those who write down what they need to do tend to perform better. Simply creating a plan for how you will achieve all the overwhelming activities you need to do can help lower anxiety.

Another important player in academic success is confidence. Research shows that a great predictor of academic success is academic self-confidence.

Confidence, as it turns out, has a lot to do with how we see ourselves and the way we think that others see us. Performance can also be influenced by a phenomenon called the stereotype threat, which occurs when we are in a situation in which we might affirm a negative stereotype about ourselves.

Another related phenomenon that can also get in the way of academic success is imposter syndrome. This phenomenon is characterized by a constant inability to accept that your successes are deserved based on your skills and abilities. For example, a Bruin might not believe that they truly belong at UCLA, thinking their acceptance was a fluke.

In combating imposter syndrome, it is important to take pride in your successes and remember that it is a phenomenon everyone experiences – even Albert Einstein. Remember how doing well made you feel and carry that confidence over to your next set of exams.

There are also methods to transform your overall confidence levels and de-stress before an exam.

First and foremost, of course, is to find an effective study routine and crack open your textbooks. But also remember to balance this out with breaks for relaxation, exercise and self-care.

Now let’s say you manage to do all of this but still feel a sense of doubt creeping in as you enter the lecture hall.

Before you take your seat, consider another small method that can help tip the scales back in order: the power pose. According to a Harvard study, people who stood in an open, powerful way before walking on stage to give a speech tended to be more successful in performance or presentation, as well as be more likely to be hired.

Maybe, however, the panic sets in once you’ve sat down and opened your test. Is there anything you can do at this point to lessen anxiety and boost confidence?

According to a set of tips from Deakin University, there is. It suggests quelling fears during an exam by taking deep, regular breaths while closing your eyes, promoting blood flow by flexing then relaxing your fingers, or writing down all the information you know about one topic in order to find links or trigger memory. There’s also my personal favorite: If you do not know the answer to a hard question, skip it and come back.

Another solution to the academic performance conundrum may simply be time.

Lavi Paoletti, a fourth-year economics student, said that he keeps a level head during exams because he knows that panicking will just make it worse. His confidence carried from always doing well in high school into freshman year of college, but there was a sudden shock when freshman year wasn’t as easy as his previous schooling had been, he said.

“I definitely work harder to prepare myself for the test now,” Paoletti said. “When I first got to UCLA I just thought it would be easy because everything was easy in high school. Now actually, I’m better at gauging how much work I need to put into classes.”

Jack Gobel, a second-year business economics student, had a similar high school to freshman year transition.

He said that he could easily blow through work in high school and it worked for him. But once coming to college, it did not work the same way – especially his first quarter.

Castel said freshmen tend to have the least accurate expectations of performance, and fourth-years tend to match-up their confidence with ability better. He explained that experience matters in order to manage your expectations.

As we approach the end of our quarter, try to keep in mind what’s helpful anxiety and what’s overwhelming. Go for a run, take a deep breath and ace that exam.

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Alexandra Grace Bell
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