Test Anxiety

“I don’t understand it;

I knew it before the test but my mind just went blank.”

Students and parents alike frequently express confusion over good homework scores coupled with low test scores.  While it is possible that a student “procured” the homework, rather than actually doing it, there are a surprising number of times that the student genuinely has spent much effort on the material and seems to truly understand the concepts, but come test day the questions all seem foreign.

It is typical for such students to claim that they “don’t take tests well” or lament that they “knew everything before and after the test but not during the test.”  They commonly appear stressed out before the tests and usually spend time feverishly going over notes minutes before taking the exam.

While being properly prepared for the exam is the first step towards success, avoiding stress before the exam can help more than you may know.

We’ve been told a number of times about the different levels of memory, that is, short-term vs. long-term memory.  Short-term memory is used to recall, for example, a phone number as you move from the phone book to the telephone.  Information stored in short-term memory is lost after a relatively short period of time and it is this type of memory that many students use to “cram” for their exams.  Of course, the information retained this way is lost soon thereafter and the student couldn’t retrieve that information later if his life depended on it.  Studies also point to stress induced blockage of the transfer of information from short- to long-term memory. (source)

Let’s say that a student has truly done what is necessary to place the information in long-term memory yet still has difficulty remembering what had been learned on test day.

Near the kidneys in the human body lies the adrenal gland that, under stress, secretes the hormone cortisol (the stress hormone).  According to James McGaugh, director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at UC Irvine, “There is a very selective time-dependent, memory-impairing effect …” that cortisol has on the brain.*  Memory recall was found to be most impaired during the time that the hormone level was highest.  “This seemed to occur about 30 minutes after the release of the hormone,” says McGaugh.  “This effect only lasts for a couple of hours, so that the impairing effect in this case is a temporary impairment of retrieval.  The memory is not lost.  It is just inaccessible or less accessible for a period of time.”  (source)

This means that you can literally stress yourself into forgetting important information.  Worrying about an exam as the period begins may mean that your mind can “go blank” partway through the test (which could cause even more stress and trigger a vicious cycle lasting well after the end of the period).

A study technique common to high school students is cramming for exams through “all-nighters.”  Are putting in “all-nighters” an effective method for preparing for exams?  Aside from the likelihood of such study being saved in short-term memory and the stress caused by waiting until the last minute, another study conducted in Utah suggests that there is a direct correlation between when a student goes to bed and his/her grades in school.  The article is quoted here:


”A recent survey of university students in Utah suggests that students who habitually go to bed late and sleep in the next day get lower grade point averages (GPAs) than students with early-to-bed and early-to-rise sleeping habits.

”Researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo surveyed 184 of the school’s freshmen men and women about their work and health habits and later cross-referenced their answers with end-of-semester GPAs.

”The researchers found that the later students slept in the morning, the lower their grades tended to be. In fact, out of all the factors, weekday and weekend wakeup times had the strongest association with students’ GPAs. Each hour over the average that students slept in on weekdays was associated with a 0.13-point drop on the 0.0-4.0 GPA scale. Results were similar for hours spent in bed on weekends, when many students catch up on sleep, according to study lead author Mickey T. Trockel and colleagues.

”Eating breakfast each morning was also associated with higher grades, while having a night job was associated with lower grades. The researchers concluded that the result probably owed to the fact that students who eat breakfast tend to get up earlier, and not necessarily to nutritional factors, while students who work more tend to have less time to study.

”So what’s the explanation? … Since eating breakfast was linked to better grades and working was linked to poorer grades, the answer for the sleep results may lie in time management, they suggest.

”For now, students wanting to maximize their academic performance should improve their sleep habits, eat breakfast each morning, and use a day-planner to improve time management, the researchers said.”


SOURCE: Journal of American College Health 2000; 49:125-130.


The article above shines light on the importance of proper sleep and nutrition, but is there anything specific that can been done to help fight memory loss?  “When you are getting ready to take an exam, you might want to go and familiarize yourself with the location. You might study in the classroom you will take the exam in,” suggested Littlejohn, a psychologist at Georgia State University.  Littlejohn also recommends some general stress-fighting techniques: Try slow, deep breathing, or close your eyes and envision a calm place.

There also seems to be evidence that high doses of vitamin C leads to a lower concentration of cortisol, so a good plan might be to refrain from cramming via all-nighters, go to bed at a decent hour, eat a good breakfast and drink some orange juice before the test.


Good Luck …



*  While this statement was made referring to lab animals, the affects are predicted to be similar in humans.



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