Test anxiety overwhelms students during finals week

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For some college students, test anxiety is as predictable as the spring flowers blooming on campus. Not that these students would notice the flowers, or anything else, as they get ready for finals.

When University of Akron student Raj Nandi takes an exam, it becomes an all-encompassing experience.

“I’m antsy,” said Nandi, 31, a University of Akron graduate student in business administration. “My wife stays away from me. She just stays out of my way. And I have a little trouble sleeping.”

No matter that Nandi completed a rigorous engineering undergraduate major and has successfully taken test after test and has done well; he still gets nervous.

It’s a problem that affects many students. As finals near, it’s the busy season for those who provide counseling or academic support for college students who have trouble dealing with the stress of exams.

Common symptoms of test anxiety include: trouble sleeping or waking up in the night, worrying, having a rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, or feelings of nausea, say experts and area students. Perhaps the most distressing symptom is completely blanking out during the test.

“Test anxiety comes up, more so than you would ever imagine,” said William Hale, Ph.D., assistant director of the University Counseling Services at Case Western Reserve University.

Test anxiety occurs in various degrees. Not all anxiety is bad, because it can motivate a student to hunker down and study, experts said.

“A bit of that sharpens your attention and makes you more alert,” said Ronnie Love, a reading and writing specialist at Kent State University’s Academic Support Center. Love, who works with students of all skill levels, said many students who suffer from test anxiety feel that way because they simply haven’t put in the hours they need to master the material.

“It’s justified anxiety,” she said.

For those who feel anxious because they aren’t prepared, the answer is obvious: Prepare better.

However, Hale said the students he treats for test anxiety have almost always put in the study time, obviously know their stuff and still have problems.

Many students who attend Case Western were at the top, or near top, of their high school classes, Hale explained. They can become very anxious and thrown off by a new environment.

“When they come here, they are thrown in with students who are also the cream of the crop–and they may no longer be top dog,” Hale said. “The curve gets completely reconfigured, and incredibly stressful for them.”

Hale said he often works with students who know the material thoroughly–even tutor their friends–and still draw a blank when it comes time to take the test. Feelings of anxiety easily can cause a student to be unable to access the information that he or she knows, he said.

It is also very common for adult learners–generally defined as age 25 or older–to have test anxiety, because they feel a lot of additional pressure, said Deborah Gwin, director of the Adult Resource Center at the University of Akron, which provides services to students who are juggling many roles in their lives.

“What brings our adult learners back to school is what I call the four D’s–death, disability, downsizing or divorce,” said Gwin, who added that about one-third of the university’s students are considered adult learners.

“If you’ve got three kids at home and you’ve lost your spouse or your income, you have to do well,” she said. “Also, you have less time to prepare.”

When reassurance and honing study skills aren’t enough, students often benefit from getting some help from a university’s counseling services, Love and Gwin said.

Hale, a psychologist, said students who have test anxiety usually come for counseling either because they are self-referred, or because of a professor’s suggestion. Hale said when treating a student, he first does a thorough evaluation, to see whether the anxiety affects other aspects of a student’s life or is limited to the testing situation.

Students who have simple test anxiety often benefit from two strategies–understanding the thought processes that are making them anxious, and learning some concrete relaxation exercises.

Gaining an understanding of the thinking that contributes to test anxiety is critical, Hale said, because it gets to the root of the problem. Usually, a student feels anxious because he or she believes they “must” get an “A” on a test or it will set up a string of misfortunes. Hale said a student’s train of thought generally runs something like the following:

“`I have to make sure I do perfectly on these tests. If I don’t make an A on the test, I won’t do well in the course. If I don’t do well in the course, my GPA goes down. If my GPA goes down, I won’t get a good job. If I don’t get a good job, I won’t be able to pay off my student loans. I’ll never be happy. And…’ “

Hale said he helps this kind of student learn to replace these anxiety-producing thoughts with more realistic, less catastrophic thinking.

“I bring it back to the here and now,” he said. “This is one test. I look at where the perfectionism comes from,” Hale said.

In addition to changing automatic, negative thoughts, a student will benefit from learning some simple relaxation exercises, Hale said. Hale favors progressive muscle relaxation, a process in which a person first tenses, then relaxes part of the body, and a few minutes of breathing focus.

Simple test anxiety is treatable without use of medication, Hale added, and the prognosis is bright.

Just like many of the students who have the problem.