8 Tips to Reduce Test Anxiety

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Improve test scores and ease concerns around exam pressure with these actionable tips for managing test anxiety.

[Featured image] A learner in a brown shirt and glasses studies for a test with an open book and a laptop computer.

Getting anxious before a test or exam is to be expected and perfectly normal. It's how you deal with that anxiety that matters. There are many ways to calm your nerves before test-taking. Sometimes these emotions can become overwhelming and negatively impact your ability to perform well.

In this article, we will look at the cause and symptoms of test anxiety and ways to overcome it so that you can show up on test day as your best self. 

What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety is a form of performance anxiety. Wanting to perform well can be a strong motivating factor that helps you prepare for success. However, the pressure to get a good grade may cause you to experience anxiety, which can negatively affect your test scores and overall well-being. 

Test anxiety comes with various physical and emotional responses, which can affect cognition and ability regarding test performance. Physical symptoms can include headaches, nausea, rapid heartbeat, or a sensation of tightness in the chest. You may also experience emotional symptoms like procrastination, fear or helplessness, and sometimes anger. Experiencing these symptoms can also impact your brain's ability to function at its best. If you suffer from test anxiety, you will likely have experienced racing thoughts during an exam or difficulty concentrating.

How common is test anxiety?

According to a literature review by the National Foundation for Educational Research, test anxiety affects 10 to 40 percent of all US students [1]. It’s a widespread issue that anyone can experience, regardless of age or education level. 


8 tips to reduce test anxiety

Follow these tips to reduce your test anxiety and go into tests feeling calmer and more confident. You can start implementing these easy-to-follow strategies today. 

1. Study in similar places as the test will be taken.

By preparing in an environment similar to where you will take your test, you will feel more comfortable and familiar with your surroundings. This allows you to focus on the task and helps you recall information.

Read more: How to Stop Procrastinating: 9 Practical Tips

2. Get a good night’s sleep.

A good night's sleep is beneficial not only the night before the test but in the days leading up to it. Since your brain is responsible for taking all the information you’ve studied and storing it for test day, getting seven to nine hours of sleep will help you retain the material you’ve learned. Proper rest is also crucial for calming nerves, so don’t neglect sleep when preparing for a big test. 

3. Take time to learn the material well.

Practice makes perfect. Proper preparation is one of the best ways to immediately lower anxiety levels. Give yourself ample time to study and develop a study plan that works for you. Remember, every step you take toward your goal is a step closer to success.

Read more: How to Improve Memory: Science-Backed Strategies and Tips

4. Exercise regularly.

The importance of exercise goes far beyond its physical benefits. Exercise has also been shown to benefit mental health, so take your test anxiety out on the gym. Whether lifting weights, going for a walk, or practicing yoga, getting active typically helps lower your anxiety levels to set you up for success on test day. 

5. Avoid excess caffeine.

While moderate caffeine intake can help increase focus and improve energy, excess caffeine can heighten test anxiety symptoms. If you don’t regularly consume caffeine, then it’s best to continue your current habits. If you enjoy caffeine, be sure to monitor how much you consume, and consider cutting back if you’re experiencing test anxiety. 

6. Practice relaxation.

When you experience anxiety, your body goes into a state of "fight or flight," which can interfere with your ability to focus, think clearly, and perform well on the test. Relaxation techniques can help to counteract this response and promote a sense of calm and relaxation. Some methods to try might include: 

  • Deep breathing: Deep breathing is a simple yet effective technique that can help slow down your breathing, lower your heart rate, and reduce anxiety. To practice deep breathing, sit in a comfortable position and inhale deeply through your nose, and exhale slowly through your mouth. 

  • Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves tensing and then relaxing each muscle group in your body, starting with your toes and moving up to your head. This can help to release physical tension and promote relaxation. 

  • Mindfulness meditation: This involves focusing on the present moment and letting go of distracting thoughts. This can help to calm your mind and reduce feelings of anxiety. Start by focusing on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. When your mind is drawn to a physical sensation or thought, note it and return your attention to the breath.

7. Visualize success.

When you visualize success, you create a mental image of yourself performing well on the test and achieving your desired outcome. This mental rehearsal can help prepare your mind and body for the test experience. As you imagine yourself successfully answering questions and completing tasks, you begin to believe in your ability to do so in real life. When you have a clear mental image of what success looks like, you can stay focused on your goals and avoid getting distracted by negative thoughts or anxiety.

Read more: How to Motivate Yourself: 11 Tips for Self Improvement

8. Seek support.

There’s no such thing as a wrong time to seek professional help for improving your mental health. If your grades are suffering due to test anxiety and it’s negatively impacting other areas of your personal life, then speaking to a counselor could have tremendous benefits. Anxiety can be confusing to experience. Counselors can help you understand what’s happening and talk you through how to become more comfortable taking tests and improving your overall mental health.

Want more? Try these three ways to manage anxiety from the University of Pennsylvania's Foundations of Positive Psychology:

Identify the root cause of your anxiety

Identifying the root cause of your anxiety will put you in a better position to address the problem at its source. The cause of your anxiety may be completely different than another person’s, even though you experience similar symptoms.

Common causes of test anxiety include but are not limited to:

  • Putting too much emphasis on one test

  • Having a fear of not living up to expectations

  • Being unprepared for a test

  • Believing grades define your worth

  • Needing to pass a class to graduate or advance in your career

  • Feeling you may not be able to finish a timed test

  • Dwelling in past poor test history

  • Experiencing perfectionism

Anxiety about the test or passing the class

If you aren’t typically prone to experiencing test anxiety, then something specific about this test may be causing excessive concern. Putting extra time into your preparation can help ease your anxiety, as can speaking with your teacher or someone who has taken the class. People often hesitate to ask for help, but there's nothing wrong with talking to your teacher to understand better what you need to know to prepare for your test adequately.

Other causes of anxiety

Life is complex. Everybody has things going on outside of school, and sometimes these stressors can become overwhelming and create anxiety in other aspects of life, including taking tests. You could be more prone to test anxiety if you experience mental health struggles in other areas. Considering this, speaking with a counselor to express your feelings and learn techniques and strategies to combat anxiety is often beneficial.

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Article sources

  1. National Library of Medicine. “Test anxiety and a high-stakes reading comprehension test: A behavioral genetics perspective, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5487000/” Accessed December 21, 2023.

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