What Is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety can make it difficult to do well on exams

Stressed out student taking exam
Test anxiety can make it difficult to do your best on exams. Mehmet Yunus Yesil/E+/Getty Images

You paid attention in class, took detailed notes, read every chapter, and even attended extra study sessions after class, so you should do great on that big exam, right? When the test is presented, however, you find yourself so nervous that you blank out the answers to even the easiest questions. If this experience sounds familiar, then you might be suffering from what is known as test anxiety.

What Is Text Anxiety?

Test anxiety is a psychological condition in which people experience extreme distress and anxiety in testing 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.

A little bit of nervousness can actually be helpful, making you feel mentally alert and ready to tackle the challenges presented in an exam. The Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that there is a link between arousal levels and performance. Essentially, increased arousal levels can help you do better on exams, but only up to a certain point. Once these stress levels cross that line, the excessive anxiety you might be experiencing can actually interfere with test performance.

Excessive fear can make it difficult to concentrate and you might struggle to recall things that you have studied. You might feel like all the information you spent some much time reviewing suddenly seems inaccessible in your mind. You blank out the answers to questions to which you know you know the answers.

This inability to concentrate and recall information then contributes to even more anxiety and stress, which only makes it that much harder to focus your attention on the test. 

Understanding Test Anxiety

Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety. In situations where the pressure is on and a good performance counts, people can become so anxious that they are actually unable to do their best.

Other examples of performance anxiety:

  • A high school basketball player becomes very anxious before a big game. During the game, he is so overwhelmed by this stress that he starts missing even easy shots.
  • A violin student becomes extremely nervous before a recital. During the performance, she messes up on several key passages and flubs her solo. 

While people have the skills and knowledge to do very well in these situations, their excessive anxiety impairs their performance.

The severity of test anxiety can vary considerably from one person to another. Some people might feel like they have "butterflies" in their stomach and while others might find it difficult to concentrate on the exam.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, symptoms of test anxiety can be physical, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional. Common physical symptoms include things such as headaches, diarrhea, rapid breathing, and light-headedness.

Others might experience a racing heartbeat and a sense of shakiness.

In the most severe cases, people can feel nauseous and short of breath or might even experience a full-blown panic attack.

Test anxiety can also result in behavioral and cognitive symptoms such as negative thinking and difficulty concentrating. People experiencing test anxiety might compare themselves to other students and mistakenly believe that they are the only person suffering from such terrible anxiety. Other symptoms of test anxiety can involve emotions such as a sense of helplessness, fear, anger, and disappointment.


Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.). Test anxiety. Retrieved from http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children/test-anxiety.

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