It’s midterm season — a time filled with coffee, all-nighters and tears. Exams take an emotional toll on everyone, but it can be especially difficult for those who struggle with test anxiety.

Test anxiety is a form of performance anxiety — an emotional response to a situation where how one performs may have significant consequences. It can be provoked by previous poor test taking experiences, fear of failure or just a generalized sense of anxiety.

Isabella Malatesta, a third-year health sciences student, remembers struggling with test anxiety as early as the sixth grade.

“[I felt overwhelmed] just knowing that something that I’m doing is either right or wrong, and I don’t know if it’s right or wrong and I can’t be sure,” says Malatesta. “That kind of uncertainty and having to do it this way and this way only, and this is how I’m going to be considered good enough or not, just by putting down what I put on this paper.”

“Even if I feel really well-prepared, just going into a test makes me so nervous, just the thought of knowing [that] I’m being evaluated.”

Sandra Mathison, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has been studying the effects of standardized testing in post-secondary schools for decades.

In a statement to the Gazette, she writes that everyone experiences some level of test anxiety but an estimated 10 to 40 per cent of students experience significant test anxiety.

It can present physical symptoms like nausea, sweating, shortness of breath, headaches, restlessness and fidgeting, as well as physiological or emotional symptoms like fear, anger, stress and self-doubt.

Jordyn Cohen, a third-year psychology student, describes herself as a studious overachiever and has struggled with test anxiety since high school. She says it has negatively impacted her academic performance.

“There was an exam in first year [where] I actually dropped the course because the exam went so terribly that there was actually no recovering,” says Cohen. “I psyched myself out so much before it and during [the exam], and I actually did not remember a thing that I studied for a week prior to the exam.”

Cohen has learned some self-coping strategies since then. If she finds herself getting anxious during an exam, she looks away — she’ll stare at the floor or the ceiling for a minute or two, giving herself some time to breathe.

While breathing exercises, sleep and physical exercise can be helpful, Mathison writes that it’s also important to ask why schools persist with assessments like standardized testing in the first place.

If the purpose of assessment is to understand what students know and can do – which is what it ought to be – then any assessment that is anxiety provoking should be rethought,” writes Mathison. “There is a need to fix an educational practice that creates a negative experience, rather than focusing on fixing students, as if they are what is problematic.”

Western students struggling with test anxiety are encouraged to seek assistance at Academic Support and Engagement. Learning Development and Success also lists several self-help strategies for coping.

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