How to Tackle Test Anxiety: An Interview with Noodle Pro, Jonathan Arak
By Casey Loalbo
Are you immediately overcome by fear of failure right before it's time to take an important test? Do you find yourself having negative thoughts and maybe even experiencing physical symptoms? Racing thoughts, excessive sweating and dry mouth are just a few of the somatic symptoms experienced by some individuals who suffer from test anxiety. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Test-taking can evoke these feelings and symptoms and sometimes, it can be difficult to understand the causes of test anxiety. Test anxiety is a psychological condition in which people experience extreme distress and anxiety in test-taking situations. While many people experience some degree of stress and anxiety before and during exams, test anxiety can actually impair learning and hurt test performance. Test anxiety is characterized as a type of performance anxiety. Individuals who experience test anxiety report symptoms of test anxiety as having difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, excessive sweating, dry mouth, cognitive symptoms, and sometimes even panic attacks. Individuals who have experience with test anxiety describe feeling dizzy and out of breath immediately upon beginning a high-stakes test. Some even share that their test anxiety sets in and interferes with their performance well before the day of the test. Some individuals share that they immediately begin experiencing test-anxiety the moment they are beginning to learn about material they know they will eventually be tested on.
For some, the test in question does not even need to be of particular importance but it still causes the individual to feel extremely panicked. Obviously, different personalities tend to have greater associations with test anxiety. A type-A personality is likely to experience a greater degree of test anxiety or even generalized anxiety than a person who tends to be more laid back. This makes sense because as we already know, a person who considers themselves to be a type-A personality is likely to place lots of importance on the feeling, perceived or actual, that they are in full control of themselves and their surroundings. But since tests are unpredictable by nature, some of that control is missing from the experience and, thus, the individual is likely to feel rather anxious regardless of preparation. This experience can feel extremely unsettling and while it’s natural and happens to a large percentage of individuals, there are some coping mechanisms that have been found effective.
Test anxiety can occur to anyone at any time but it has become an increasingly popular topic since the world has been confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of repeated cancellations of standardized test administrations, students are finding themselves feeling even more anxious than usual in the weeks leading up to their test and on the day of. This makes sense. Afterall, given the unpredictability of the pandemic, it’s difficult to be sure whether or not these students will have additional opportunities to test. Students may be overwhelmed by the possibility of bombing the test and then not having another opportunity to test. They may doubt the hard work and preparation they put into studying for the test because so much of their tutoring was remote. Regardless of the test type, test anxiety is at an all-time high for test-takers everywhere. High-stakes tests and high-stakes admissions processes only exacerbate the issue of test anxiety. The obvious question is-How can we help students overcome the obstacles that test anxiety presents? While it may be hard to completely eliminate test anxiety, students can try to target some of the secondary issues it causes.
There are lots of things we can do to try to ease test anxiety. A good night's sleep and carefully planned preparation (and avoiding cramming at the last minute!) can certainly help us to feel better on the day of the test. Walking into the test center with a feeling of preparedness is a great first step for avoiding anxious feelings that often creep up before and during a test. Deep breathing and relaxation techniques can also be helpful when students experience negative thoughts associated with test-taking. Taking some deep, cleansing breaths as soon as you are settled in your chair is a great way to ground yourself before beginning the test.
I sat down with Noodle Pro, Jonanthan Arak, to get his take on the best ways to combat test anxiety. Jonathan has worked for years with students as they make their way through their test prep journey. During this time, he’s given lots of advice about overcoming test anxiety. We know that getting enough sleep and practicing good study skills and study habits is helpful, but I wanted to hear about the specific techniques that Jonathan recommends to his students for managing test anxiety both before the test and during the test. I knew that his years of experience would equate to lots of sage advice and I was eager to hear his ideas.
Before the Test
First, Jonathan suggests that students complete 4 practice tests with a full SAT or ACT prep. He also believes in trying to make sure the practice tests are taken under conditions that are as close as possible to what things will be like of the day of the actual test. Students should try to take as many of those practice tests as possible with other people around so that you can get used to what a real test-taking situation will feel like on the day of the test. This is especially important if you get distracted easily by others who might seem to be moving faster than you or are thrown off by external stimuli like someone tapping their pen/pencil.
Jonathan recommends practicing for a test by getting yourself familiar with your pacing. As you are doing practice problems or a practice test, you should note the time it takes. You may notice that you effortlessly fly through certain sections or questions types but that others seem to take significantly longer. Jonathan says that many students will find that their pacing is just fine and perhaps not something they need to stress about as much as they may have anticipated.
In order to calm test anxiety, or even general anxiety, Jonathan recommends using the Calm App or going to Yoga. He also highlights the importance of getting past any historical issues that may cause negative self-talk or emotional symptoms. For example, just because you may have had a bad experience in 7th-grade math does not mean you are "bad at math". Get rid of any thoughts like this by using positive affirmations and deep breaths. "I am good at Math! I’ve got this! Just do it!" Although these phrases may sound cliche, any type of positive self-talk is absolutely helpful in stressful situations.
During the Test
When you arrive at your testing site, Jonathan recommends trying to sit closer to the front of the room, near the proctor. This will make it easier to alert the proctor to a distraction or for the proctor to take notice of a distraction on their own and put a stop to it. Sitting in front of the room is also especially useful for students who tend to have test anxiety when comparing their pace to the pace of others.
During the test, if you find yourself finishing early, Jonathan encourages giving yourself an extra mini-break. You can take a bathroom break or simply do some deep breathing before moving on to the next section. The purpose of this is to give yourself some rejuvenation before embarking on the next test section. This will be helpful for you both physically and mentally.
Sometimes during the test, we stumble upon a question that really stumps us. We may get extremely frustrated by the question and wrack our brain to figure out the answer. After lots of rumination, we may ultimately decide to skip it and move on. The trouble is, we often bring our frustration along with us to the next question and even though the next question may not be quite as difficult, lingering frustration tricks us into feeling like we are still struggling and chips away at our confidence. Instead, Jonathan recommends taking three deep breaths and going to your happy place. Your happy place can be a beach, a mountain top or anywhere else that brings you happiness-- but be sure to make it specific. Reset. Stay centered and grounded.
No matter which of these test-taking strategies you find helpful, utilizing some type of technique to ease test-taking anxiety is necessary. Most importantly, remember that no test or test score will ever determine your self-worth. It is also very important to remember that test anxiety tricks and tools take practice, just like anything else that you are trying out. This means that it’s ok if it takes you some time to become comfortable with how to use the different techniques that help ease test anxiety. Like most new things, practice makes perfect, and as you become more accustomed to using these techniques they will eventually be automatic.
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