Your test is about to begin. You studied hard and drank plenty of water (and coffee), but you can’t remember what you know when the test starts. You may even realize that you have sweaty palms and that you are fidgeting in your seat. What happened? 

Test anxiety may be one reason. It’s pretty common and there are ways to overcome it.

    • Students: use these actionable test anxiety tips to help you prepare and feel confident for your next exam
    • Instructors: implement these overlooked strategies to prepare your students before the test begins

What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety is a psychological reaction (and sometimes physiological) that causes distress, tension, and anxiety for students before and during a test. Test anxiety is essentially performance anxiety.

Symptoms of exam anxiety 

Exam anxiety can mean a range of things depending on the student; for some students, it can mean feelings of sheer dread and their mind blanking and it can cause more severe reactions such as panic attacks, nausea, sweating and shortness of breath for others. Even though test anxiety is subjective and different for everyone, it typically refers to something more than just being distracted.

Test anxiety tips for students

Aside from general preparation, such as getting ample rest the night before and eating a healthy breakfast the morning of the exam, here are some test anxiety tips that can help you on your exams:

Figure out what works for you
You’ve probably heard of various learning styles, such as visual, auditory, and social to name a few. However, the truth is that “learning styles” should simply be looked at as different methods and ways that people can learn. There may not be one specific way that’s best for you. So tailor your studying approach to the course and test.

You may find that one exam requires a blend of learning styles while another exam may only be using flashcards to recall vocabulary. 

In addition to tailoring how you study, think about other things that impact the quality of your studying. Do you learn more in the morning or evening? Can you concentrate better when there’s music playing? Determine what works for you and keep doing it.

Make a list of what you don’t know yet
This is pretty straightforward: make a list of everything you don’t know leading up to the test. Try focusing on this list and progressively check off each item as you learn it.

This can help you visualize what you need to know and you can even group items into larger chunks and tackle one section at a time. Using this list of what you don’t know yet is also a great way to create your own practice tests.

Make your own practice tests
Making practice tests allows you to reinforce what you know and test yourself on what you don’t know. As mentioned above, use your list of what you don’t know and create practice tests. In each practice test, think of different questions to test your knowledge on the same topics.

For example:

Question variation 1: What year was the United States founded? (1776)

Question variation 2: What date was the United States founded? (July 4, 1776)

Question variation 3: True or false: the US was founded on July 4, 1767 (false)

As you can see, small variations can help ensure that you know the answers in different contexts and that you aren’t simply regurgitating information.

Teach someone else
Teaching someone else requires you to think of subjects in a different way. You need to articulate how to explain it to someone, anticipate their questions, and prove to be an “expert.” This is a great exercise for group study situations or even just with a friend over a Zoom call.

Make sure your technology meets the requirements
One aspect of managing test anxiety that’s often overlooked is checking that your technology meets the requirements before the online exam. By doing so, you have one less thing to worry about. Do you have the correct device, the appropriate operating system and browser, and is your internet speed fast enough? Double-check technology requirements ahead of time.

If you aren’t sure of what the technology requirements are, ask your instructor for a specific list a few days before the exam. 

If it’s a proctored test, make sure you know what that means
Many students have taken an online exam but some have never taken an online proctored exam. Ask your instructor or institution to provide you with more information on what online proctoring is and about how it works so that you can know what to expect.

Ask questions such as:

How is my exam being proctored?
There are many different methods of online proctoring such as AI only, live proctoring, lockdown browsers, and a blend of AI and human proctoring. Figure out which method is being used so you can know what to expect.

What can trigger a flag?
There are many misconceptions about what proctoring software flags and doesn’t flag. Make sure that you know the nuances.

Is my data private?
Some students have concerns over data privacy. Ask your instructor or institution for a privacy statement and an FAQ on the proctoring software.

How instructors can help reduce exam anxiety for students

Provide a practice test 
Practice tests help your students get comfortable with the testing platform and proctoring software. Knowing what to expect and how to use test platforms can reduce their anxiety because it’s one less concern.

Have a technology/system requirements check in place
Before the practice test, send a list of technology and system requirements to your students and preferably a link to test each item. You can communicate this information with your students in a few ways such as email and also LMS announcements, forums, and the syllabus.

Give students a list of support options
Provide your students with a simple list of support options that are available before and during the exam. Provide phone numbers, email addresses, and hyperlinks.

Create accessible online exams
Students need accessibility in the classroom. Your online exams should meet common accessibility compliance standards such as ADA, Section 508, and WCAG. 

Unfortunately, accessibility is an overlooked aspect of exam and course design so keep these accessibility questions in mind

    • Does your color contrast for text and the background color meet web accessibility compliance standards?
    • Is the text in an appropriate font that’s easily readable? 
    • Are you providing text alternatives (captioning, subtitles, transcripts, etc.) for all video and audio
    • Is assistive technology such as screen readers, dictation software, and screen magnifiers supported by the testing platform and proctoring software? 

Use the examples in this article as a checklist to create accessible online classes and exams.

Encourage your students to ask questions
Whether it’s about specific topics on the exam, test question formats, or how to use the test platform – encourage them to ask questions ahead of the exam. Whether it’s in the LMS forum and chat or email, make sure that they know you’re genuinely available to help them prepare for the exam.


Now that you know some test anxiety tips and ways to overcome it, it’s important to understand what causes it.

What causes test anxiety?

You’ve probably heard someone say, “I’m not a good test taker.” But why is that? In addition to lack of preparation, many factors cause test anxiety for students such as pressure, competitiveness, technology concerns, and not knowing what to expect during the exam. Many causes of test anxiety are often linked to the reasons students cheat on exams

Pressure
Students face a lot of pressure. Some students perform better under pressure while others struggle with the anxiety it causes. Whether it’s maintaining a certain GPA to qualify for a scholarship or even to avoid academic probation. Pressure can lead to fear of failure and an intense effort to achieve perfection. Pressure can also lead to competitiveness. All of which can negatively impact the student’s ability to perform on the exam.

Competitiveness
In many ways, we live in a competitive society. How many times have you heard, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” It’s normal for students to have a strong desire to outperform their peers but it can also add to their anxiety leading up to an exam.

Technology concerns
Taking an online exam can cause more anxiety, especially if the student isn’t familiar with the testing platform. It’s even worse if students aren’t aware of what technology will be used and what the system requirements are ahead of time. Students will often log in to take their exam and find that their operating system or browser isn’t compatible with the testing platform or proctoring software. This can cause unnecessary stress just before an exam and negatively impact their performance.

Unaware of test expectations
In addition to not knowing what the technology is required, students can stress over other details such as test rules, timing, question format, accessibility and accommodations, and even how it’ll be monitored.

      • Will the test be timed? 
      • What type of questions will there be? Multiple choice? Essay? Can I backtrack to review my previous answers?
      • Are the test platforms and proctoring software accessible? Will I be able to use my assistive devices such as a screen reader? Can I have a time extension accommodation?
      • How is the exam monitored by the proctoring software? What is flagged? Will it flag me for cheating if my dog barks or my roommate walks by?

Can online proctoring help reduce test anxiety?

Honorlock and the University of North Alabama partnered to conduct a study on test anxiety and online proctoring. You can access the study’s eBook by completing the form below.

This study details:

        • Student exam anxiety drivers
        • How to reduce test anxiety and basic steps involved
        • The role online proctoring and live proctors have on student emotions and success

“The proctor popping in was different than I expected – in a positive way. I imagined them being more strict. I felt that the proctor was helpful and a lot less intimidating than I thought.”
– Student quote in a post-exam interview

Complete the form below to download the study’s eBook