How Stress Affects Your Test Scores
Ben Bernstein, PhD
Feeling stressed out is a very common experience for college
students. So much is new and in flux, and there’s a lot of pressure on you to
perform at your best. You shouldn’t be surprised that your stress level
directly affects your success in test taking.
In 1908, two scientists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson,
studied the effect of stress on performance. It is one of the most researched
phenomena in psychology. On a graph, stress is on the x axis and performance is
on the y axis. The relationship between the two is a bell curve. Simply put, thep Yerkes-Dodson law shows (1)
when your stress is too high or too low, your performance suffers; and (2) you
need some stress to perform at your best.
We all know that when our stress is too great, we become
preoccupied with the stress itself. Here
are typical comments from students I coach:
“I was so stressed, I could hardly breathe,” “When I came to an
unfamiliar question, I froze,” “With all that pressure, I couldn’t keep my
attention on the test.” Less common is
having too little stress: “This test doesn’t matter,” “I don’t care how I do,”
“I don’t like this subject anyway.” With too much stress, test anxiety takes
you over the top and you can’t think through a question. With too little stress
there’s no juice. You blow it off.
The ideal place is right in the middle: just enough stress
to feel pumped and ready for action. Athletes call this “the zone,” but it
sounds mystical—“Oh, wow, I was in the zone.” It’s like they found themselves
in a great place but didn’t know how they got there.
Getting into the zone
In over thirty years of coaching I’ve trained college
students to get into the zone consciously. Bar none, this is one of the best
test-taking strategies. You just need to become aware of when your stress is
going past the optimal point and then use tools reduce your stress. If you’re
looking for the best test-taking tip, or best test-preparation strategy, this
is it: get yourself into the zone.
When I ask people, “What is stress?” they always point to
things outside themselves: “My French class,” “My calculus teacher,” “Too much
work.” This thinking suggests that for
your stress level to go down, everything outside you has to change. That’s not
going to happen. If you want to decrease your stress level, you have to learn
how to keep yourself in the zone. In other words, you need to develop the kind
of study habits that involve using tools to keep yourself calm, confident, and
focused. That’s the three-legged stool I wrote about in my last post (February
28), the sturdiest platform for test success on any test.
What triggers your test stress?
In each of my next three posts, I’ll give you the tools for
staying calm, confident, and focused. But first you have to become aware of the
triggers that let test anxiety shake your cool, loosen your confidence, or get
you distracted. A trigger is something that happens outside you which fires off
a stress reaction inside: the date of your French final is fast approaching,
you see a tough item on an test, or the person next to you in the exam room is
sighing and fidgeting.
To get a grip on stress, start by becoming aware of your
triggers. Do you know what they are? This is your first step toward the kind of test success you are truly capable
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, 2012).