Are you someone who knows the material but just gets freaked out on exams? Or someone who starts second-guessing his answers, then erases everything he’s written and writes something else that turns out to be wrong? Or someone who spends so much time on her scratch paper that she never even finishes the test?

A strategy that can help is short-circuiting your anxiety habits by getting back into your body during the test!

Think about what you tend to do when you take a test and don’t do as well as you like, even though you studied hard and thought you knew the material. Of course you’re going to have to look at your pre-test prep honestly to see if you actually knew what you were doing, but if that prep is solid and you’re still sabotaging yourself, pick one of the following and try it:

  • Deep breathing. Set a time beforehand to stop what you’re working on and take a few deep breaths while looking straight ahead in the testing room (not down at your paper). If it’s a 2.5 hour test, for instance, work for one hour then take five deep, slow breaths, relaxing your hands in your lap and letting go of that pencil. Consciously try to drop all your other thoughts, or think about puppies or sea horses. If neither of those is your style, breathe in counting to 4, hold it for a count of 4, breathe out counting to 4, pause for a count of 4, repeat 4 more times. Now return to your work.
  • Take a walk. If it’s allowed, take a “bathroom break” halfway through. (Remember testing etiquette: in general, you have to wait until no one else from the test is using the restroom to have your turn! This avoids the appearance of impropriety/collusion.) Either actually go to the bathroom, or just go out and stretch your legs and arms and get a drink of water. The point is to get up, shake out your physical tension, then go back after a little reset.
  • Eat a snack. Ok, let’s be really honest here: my favorite is to bring some chocolate, especially if I’ve been eating a bit of chocolate when studying for the test. Not only does the food give you a bit of energy (and chocolate provides a teeny bit of caffeine), but if you’ve been studying with a certain food or scent, then the return of that food or scent can prompt better recall of the material you were studying! Check if food is allowed in your testing room, though, and don’t bring anything in a noisy wrapper or your fellow students will hate you.
  • Quick seat stretch. Stop at a pre-picked time or after you’ve made a first pass through all the problems and do some wrist and arm stretches if you can’t get up or leave. A few unobtrusive ones: clasp your hands together in front of you and rotate them to the right and left; stretch your fingers back on each hand using the other hand; put each arm across the front of your body and pull with the other arm to get at the tension in your shoulders.

What’s the point again? Stop your mental anxiety cycle by refocusing on the body you live in. Get some physical feedback from your senses to pull you off of the mathematical hamster wheel you might be tempted to get on. Remember, on an exam, you want to think hard enough but not too hard: let your previous studying and hard work carry you through!

Check out our previous posts on stereotype threat and test-taking for more ideas — or suggest your own.

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