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Academic Study Skills

This guide can assist you to increase your understanding of course material, improve your marks, and make learning a little less stressful. Here you will find strategies for time management, reading and note-taking, study skills, and test-taking.

How Can I Manage Testing Anxiety?

How Can I Manage Testing Anxiety?

By: Chelsey Finney

Can you recall a time when you felt overwhelmed by the thought of not doing well on an exam, even before writing it? What about a moment when you compared your own abilities to a friend’s who was in the same class as you? After sitting down and opening an exam, do you freeze if you don’t know how to answer the first question? Don’t worry, you are not alone!

How is anxiety experienced?

It is estimated that anywhere from 20% to 35% of all post-secondary students suffer from various degrees of testing anxiety (McDonald, 2001). Test-taking anxiety can increase depending on the circumstances that arise at school and/or home (Quinn and Peters, 2017). Such circumstances can be:

  • Working to financially support oneself
  • Having a demanding course-load
  • Scheduling conflicts
  • Sense of low competency in your ability to learn and balance stress-levels
  • An inability to regulate one’s emotions
  • Language barriers between student and presentation of material in program of study

Anxiety can manifest in various ways (Anxiety Canada, 2007-2018, p.3), including: 

  • Behaviourally as fidgeting, pacing, and or the avoidance of studying.
  • Cognitively as the inability to concentrate, with negative self-talk, and/or freezing up during assessments.
  • Emotionally as feeling overwhelmed, fearful, disappointment, angry, sad, depressed or helpless.
  • Physiologically as nausea, headaches / migraines, feeling overly warm or cold, dry mouth, dizziness, shallow/ quick breathing.

By now, you may be wondering how testing anxiety can be tackled. Researchers have identified three popular strategies that have been proven to be very helpful for students: Study Skills Training, Systematic Desensitization, and Cognitive Reframing.

Strategies for dealing with anxiety: Study Skills Training

This is a behavioural modification approach which can help you improve your organization, processing, and retrieval of course material studied previously. Study skills training, at the core, is a tool box of strategies students acquire in order to learn more effectively. Here are techniques you can explore.

By using these methods, you will see improvements in:

  • Managing your time
  • How you plan short-term goals
  • Reading/summarizing key arguments as you understand them
  • Active listening
  • Memorization

You will also be able to identify which personal habits hinder your ability to reach study goals (Motevalli, Roslan, Sulaiman, Hamzah, Hassan, and Garmjani, 2013).

For more information on how The Study Skills Training can benefit you personally, book an appointment with one of the Academic Success Centre’s Coaches today.

Strategies for dealing with anxiety: Systemic Desensitization

This is a cognitive approach which can help you identify testing circumstances that provoke anxiety to you.

This self-reflection begins with writing each scenario out in a list format. I know this is the last thing you want to do. But it’s necessary – trust me. Working through this technique can help you pin-point the origins of your anxiety in the classroom during a test (Rajiah and Saravanan, 2014). Then, when you are experiencing the scenarios that cause you anxiety, you will draw on relaxation exercises such as deep breathing and/or grounding/mindfulness. Below is an example of what your hierarchy may look like:


Five = the lowest concern

One = the highest concern

  1. What If I don’t remember the answers for a lot of questions?

  2. What if I don’t have enough time to properly answer all the assessment questions, to the best of my ability?

  3. What if my pens run out of ink halfway through the test?

  4. What if the bus is running late and I miss my assessment?

  5. What if the classroom lights are not bright enough for me to read each question

Here is a step-by-step guide to the 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise.

You will want to draw on this exercise while picturing each scenario on the list. It will help you to bring yourself down to a relaxed state.

You can also try a Grounding Exercise along with deep breathing. Grounding exercises can help you to re-orient yourself to the present reality during a severe anxiety attack or flashback. This exercise can be sensory or cognitive driven, depending on what works best for you. Below there are questions you can ask yourself:

Sensory = visual, auditory, touch, smell, and taste.

  • What do I hear?
  • What do I see around me?
  • Is there someone beside me?
  • What does the air smell like?

Cognitive = place and time specific

  • What is today’s date?
  • What season of the year are we in?
  • How old am I right now?

Strategies for dealing with anxiety: Cognitive Reframing Theory

This is a cognitive approach which helps with transforming negative self-talk into positive self-talk. How does it work?

First, you will think about certain aspects of taking a test that cause:

  • the most anxiety
  • how this aspect(s) makes you feel
  • your immediate (and negative) thoughts about how you feel

Second, you will think about why these thoughts are unrealistic to have, given the circumstances. This will help you to develop a more balanced, positive response to your impression of the testing environment in the long run.

Third, you will judge whether the intensity of your negative beliefs surrounding the circumstance provoking anxiety have lessened (Cornish and Gilleta, 2019).

Below is a cycle chart of how this restructuring process may look like for you:

Graph with Cognitive Reframing Cycle

Also, here are two cognitive based work-books that can help you identify and resolve your test anxiety triggers:



If you find anxiety is interfering with your ability to do well on exams, despite trying these techniques, consider booking an appointment with Red River College Polytechnic’s counselling services. You can follow this link to request an appointment.


5 Study Skills And Techniques For Students Who Want To Succeed In College. (2018, November 28). Retrieved from

Anxiety Canada. (n.d.). [Work-book]. Test Anxiety. Retrieved January 30, 2018, from   

Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. (2010). 4 -7- 8 Breath Relaxation Exercise: A Patient Hand-out [Brochure]. Retrieved February 20, 2019.

Cornish, P., and Gilleta, K. (n.d.). [Work-book]. 6 Steps in Cognitive Restructuring. Retrieved February 6th, 2019.

McDonald, A. S. (2001). The Prevalence and Effects of Test Anxiety in School Children. Educational Psychology, 21(1).

Motevalli, S., Roslan, S. B., Sulaiman, T., Hamzah2, S. G., Hassan, N. C., & Garmjani, M. G. (2013). New Study Skills Training Intervention for Students Who Suffer from Test     Anxiety. Asian Social Science, 9(7), 85-96.

Quinn, B. L., and Peters, A. (2017). Strategies to Reduce Nursing Student Test Anxiety: A Literature Review. Journal of Nursing Education, 56(3), 145-151.

Rajiah, K., & Saravanan, C. (2014). The Effectiveness of Psychoeducation and Systematic Desensitization to Reduce Test Anxiety Among First-year Pharmacy Students. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 78(9), 1-7.