Managing and Overcoming Testing Anxiety: Your Path to Success


We have all experienced it: that feeling of dread and foreboding before taking an exam, a myriad of scenarios running through your head outlining the worst possible outcomes. You worry about passing the exam; what might happen if you fail? You know how to do your job, so why do you need to take a test to prove it? 

These feelings of testing anxiety are very real and can have detrimental effects on your exam performance. In fact, a recent survey of operators conducted by the Ohio Water Environment Association found that nearly 30 percent of respondents cited testing anxiety as a main cause of not passing the exam.

To examine why testing anxiety is such a prevalent phenomenon, especially in high-stakes vocational testing such as an operator certification exam, I spoke with Dr. Ian MacFarlane of Austin College. Dr. MacFarlane is an assistant professor of psychology as well as a clinical psychologist. With more than 1,000 hours of therapy work with college students and adults, he has helped countless individuals recognize and overcome testing anxiety. During our discussion, he offered an articulate and comprehensive analysis on how testing anxiety affects adults and outlined some proven methods to help alleviate it.

Why am I worried?

Taking a certification exam is different from your high school biology or chemistry final: the stakes are exponentially higher. Psychologically, you may feel that taking an exam related to your everyday job duties raises a question about your professional competence. This spark of anxiety will be fanned further if a passing score on the exam is mandated for your current job or required for promotion potential. Because of these high stakes, it is human nature to place a high level of importance upon the exam, which only exacerbates the anxiety you feel.

There are many reasons this natural test-taking anxiety has such a detrimental effect upon exam performance. When asked how test anxiety manifests, Dr. MacFarlane pointed to both cognitive and physical (or somatic) symptoms, stating, “The most detrimental effects of anxiety are cognitive. The human brain is limited to a certain amount of processing power at one time. The more your brain is occupied with the anxiety of the exam, the less ability it has to process the exam content. It would be akin to going into a wrestling match with one hand tied behind your back. Anxiety is a ‘mental suck’ or leech draining your brainpower and limiting your ability to recall information or facts that might be as familiar to you as the names of your parents.”

One particularly common manifestation of testing anxiety Dr. MacFarlane cited is detachment—simply ignoring or not thinking about the exam. Just as your body will pass out instead of coping with a lack of oxygen, you are likely to avoid the discomfort of test anxiety by simply not thinking about the exam. He noted, “This can be quite detrimental as this avoidance loop can cause you to disengage from exam preparatory practices, which can seriously hinder performance on the exam.”

Other effects of anxiety can be seen as physiological symptoms such as nausea, stomach cramps, or lightheadedness. To explain this, Dr. MacFarlane offered, “Our bodies lack the ability to differentiate between real life and mental simulations. So if we are extremely worried or anxious about something, our minds can create physiological manifestations that are directly associated with the negative mental simulations.”

I’m good at my job. Why do I perform poorly on the exam?

Even though the exam is measuring the knowledge and application of tasks that you perform daily, while in the testing environment you lose the contextual cues that assist you in everyday operations. Without those additional sources of information, you must work harder to draw parallels between the tasks on the exam and the tasks you perform in your job. In other words, because you are not being tested in the environment in which you normally perform a task (a water or wastewater system), it can be difficult to recognize and solve the same problem in a test environment.

To learn techniques to help prevent testing anxiety, check out part two!



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