YOU CAN GET A GRIP ON TEST STRESS
Ben Bernstein, PhD
As a performance coach, I work with college students to improve their test scores. Here are the three most common issues I see. Jake, a sophomore about to take his history final, is a bundle of nerves. “I’m so anxious,” he says. His voice shakes and his shoulders are hiked up around his ears. Sienna, a freshman about to give her first major oral presentation, sighs, “I’m not as smart as the other students.” Stephen, a senior, is studying for his comprehensives this spring. “I’m not getting anywhere,” he says, “I keep checking e-mails and texting everyone.” Are these students suffering from anxiety, depression, or ADHD? Once I start working with them, I discover the answer is “none of the above.” Jake needs to calm down. Sienna needs to regain her confidence. And Stephen needs to learn to focus. The foundation for test success is being calm, confident, and focused.
You may well ask, “But doesn’t a good test score depend on knowing the material?” Of course it does. But knowing the content is not enough. You have to deliver it at test time. If you’re tense, filled with self-doubt, or distracted, you won’t perform at your best.
Do a quick self-diagnosis. As you study for a test or take one, do your legs bob up and down, is your breath short, do you clench your jaw? If so, you need tools to calm yourself down. When you’re staring at a tough test question, do you start thinking negatively about yourself? Is your mind filled with “I can’t handle this!” or “I’m going to fail”? If so, you need tools to keep your confidence strong. When you’re studying for a test or taking the test itself, are you thinking about the other students, or what you’re going to eat for dinner? These are signs that you need to learn how to stay focused.
When I work with students, I always show them a three-legged stool. This is a very sturdy, dependable platform when all three legs are equally strong. The three legs stand for being calm, remaining confident, and staying focused. But if one gives out you’re going to have trouble. Any athlete who is playing his or her A-game is said to be in “the zone.” That’s a state a non athlete could never attain, right? I say, not so. Being in the zone is none other than being calm, confident, and focused. Anybody can get there. It’s just that we don’t teach this stuff in schools.
To train yourself, the first step is to become aware when you’re physically tense, when you are feeling negative about yourself, or when your attention starts wandering. Without awareness you’re going to be locked in the same old habits. If you want to improve your test performance-and who doesn’t?-start observing when one of the three legs of the stool starts slipping. Then you can use the right tools to get back on track. It’s not rocket science. Based on thirty years of coaching college students to improve their performance, you can get a grip on stress.
Ben Bernstein, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and performance coach, He is the author of Test Success! How to Be Calm, Confident and Focused on Any Test (Spark Avenue Publishing, 2012). www.testsuccesscoach.com.