Many students talk about feeling nervous before taking a test or before giving a presentation, but there are some students who experience a higher level of anxiety in these types of situations. What techniques can be used to alleviate some of this anxiety?
Director of the Academic Enhancement Center at the University of Rhode Island, David Hayes, said anxiety can weaken cognitive functioning, making it more challenging for the brain to do what it needs to do to learn, memorize, and remember. He said that coming to a university for the first time is a “culture shock,” and can heighten anxiety.
“Practically everyone is dealing with some level of anxiety that’s been elevated by their experience and that makes it harder to learn [in part because] it makes it easier to want to run away from the stuff that is causing you to feel anxious, [which could be professors, tutors, counselors, assignments, etc.],” Hayes said.
“I think everyone experiences some sort of [performance anxiety or test anxiety], some experience it more than others,” says Kathryn Crisostomo, assistant director of the AEC.
Some factors that contribute to this varying degree of anxiety, she says, include the level of preparedness, or how a student takes a test and what the student is doing the day of their exam.
Crisostomo tries to lower a student’s anxiety level to facilitate focus and clear thinking by helping them to better prepare and “get in the zone.” She goes over various strategies with each student, which might include deep breathing techniques or mental visualization. Mental visualization involves a student visualizing themselves taking the exam, working through a difficult question. Habituating students to that particular situation helps so that, during the exam, the student feels more comfortable and ready to tackle challenging questions.
“I like to equate it to athletes and getting ready for a big game. I tell students to come up with their own test day playlist,” says Crisostomo.
As an athlete in high school, Crisostomo says she remembers listening to the same songs over and over again to get ready for games, in order to get in “the zone.” This helps in pumping up players and helps to make them feel more confident, which Crisostomo says is key.
“If you feel scared and nervous… you’re not going to be able to think clearly, so this is something that I talk with students about and help them to really get into that mind frame,” she says. “I think athletics and academics are really closely connected. If you look at any of the sports players on television, before they go onto the field, they have their headphones on and they are listening to their music and they’re getting in the zone, they’re not listening to the outside noise of the crowd or anybody else.”
Crisostomo suggests that students do this too. She says that putting your headphones on and listening to music on the way to an exam helps tune out the noise that might provoke anxiety.
Continuing with this sports analogy, Hayes discusses game day rituals and how when an athlete does everything at the same time and in the same way as they regularly do it, they are preparing in the same way, which sets them up for success. In this way, creating a test day ritual can have the same effect.
“If you invest yourself in the idea that, ‘if I put my tape on this way instead of that way I will be successful,’ you’re getting yourself ready to be successful by doing something that’s going to contribute to it,” he says. “Athletes learn to tune out the noise, tune out the distractions. Get your ritual in place and understand why it works for you. “
Hayes adds that another thing that contributes to an athlete’s success is how rigorously they prepare and their understanding of what they need to do in order to be prepared.
“All of these things are helpful but they are most helpful to a student who actually knows that they’ve learned the stuff that they need to know,” he says.
Crisostomo and Hayes both implement mindfulness techniques into their work with students who experience anxiety about public speaking and test-taking. Crisostomo suggests doing deep breathing exercises before and during an exam, and using mental visualization to calm and prepare the self. She also helps students identify and manage factors from life outside of the classroom that might be contributing to their anxiety.
Hayes says that performing gets easier with practice, so preparing as far ahead in advance as you can and rehearsing is helpful.
“David Ortiz is clutch hitter in the World Series because his swing is perfect, because he’s practiced this so often that the only thing he has to deal with is tuning out the noise at that point, everything else is going to come on its own,” says Hayes. “And if you know what your presentation is going to say exactly, you can actually conjure it out of your memory despite the fact that you’re feeling anxious.”
Class participation is also an issue when it comes to anxiety, especially clinical anxiety disorders such as social anxiety. Hayes suggests listening very carefully to the lecture and trying to observe what you think about what you are hearing.
“When you have something that could function as a contribution to the class, give it when you’re ready so that you don’t get called on when you’re not ready,” he says.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Hayes says, “Changing your basic habits of mind, or your basic habits during the day, is a real challenge, it takes time and practice… Doing meditative type things, programming your thinking with positive thoughts so that when your anxiety reaction comes your brain responds to it in a way that’s going to calm it down instead of elevate it, all of those kinds of things we can teach but then students need to go away and actually put them into practice and stick with them until they begin to work.”
Being prepared, creating a “test day playlist” or a test day ritual, and using mindfulness techniques are all ways in which students may regulate performance and test anxiety. The Counseling Center, Disability Services and the AEC also have resources for students experiencing anxiety that is more difficult for them to manage on their own.