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Exams can be terrifying. It’s easy to feel like the weight of the world rests in these moments – like this one test determines your grades and, in turn, your whole future – even if you know, rationally, that this isn’t really the case. What’s worse is that this fear and anxiety can make you do worse on the test. So, take a deep breath, and let us walk you through some tips for beating test anxiety so that you can walk in on test day feeling refreshed and confident.

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Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom:
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield:


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CC Kids:

Hi, I'm Thomas Frank and this is Crash Course Study Skills.

Henry Fonda was a famous actor with a career that spanned 54 years and included starring roles in classic movies like 12 Angry Men and Once Upon a Time in the West.

He was one of the most well-known and successful actors of his time, bringing home an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and even a Grammy before retiring. So it might surprise you to learn that Fonda had a life-long struggle with performance anxiety.

In fact, even when he was 75 years old with over half a century of acting experience under his belt, he would often throw up before beginning stage performance. But despite his anxiety and sudden lack of lunch, Fonda would still step out from behind the curtain and give the audience the great performance they expected.

That's because he understood one of the unavoidable facts of life. The fact that Steven Pressfield put so well in his book, The War of Art.

"Fear doesn't go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day."

If you're a student, you might not be performing on a stage or facing down an enemy army, but your tests and exams are battles all their own. And they often come with the same feelings of anxiety.

These feelings are normal, and you'll never truly banish them. If you're doing work that's important to you, you'll always feel some amount of anxiety. And that can actually be a good thing, because anxiety is an indicator that what you're doing is important. Otherwise you'd be apathetic about it.

However, too much test anxiety can hurt you. Research has shown that high-pressure situations can actually deplete your working memory. Additionally, stress caused by anxiety produces a hormone called cortisol, and too much cortisol can hinder the ability of the hippocampus to recall memories.

This means that it is crucial to learn how to manage your test anxiety. You have to learn how to perform well in the face of it and make sure it doesn't consume your thoughts so you can actually solve that geometry proof that's staring you in the face.

Fortunately, there are several techniques and mental exercises that you can use to do that. Roll the intro!

  Intro (1:40)

Text anxiety is caused by many different factors, but today we're gonna focus on the most common ones which I call the Three Big Fears.

Number one, a fear of repeating past failures. Number two, the fear of the unknown. And number three, the fear of the stakes.

Now, in a minute, we're gonna dig into each of these fears and work to figure out how you can combat them. But before we do that, there is one general purpose strategy that I wanna share with you.

The next time you feel anxious going into a test, take out a piece of paper and spend just a couple minutes writing out exactly what's causing you to feel that way. This has been scientifically proven to reduce test anxiety.

A study done at the University of Chicago found that students who were given 10 minutes to write about their fears and anxieties before a test improved their scores by an average of nearly one grade point compared to the control group.

This technique works for pretty much the same reason that using a to-do list works. It allows you to take all those worries out of your head and store them somewhere safe. You've probably been in a situation before where you're stressed and a friend tells you, "Hey, just don't worry about it man."

Of course, you can't, right? You can't just let go of the things that are worrying you. After all, your brain thinks they're important. However, by writing them down, you're unloading those worries into an external system that you trust.

So consciously, you know that they're not going anywhere. And by doing this, you free up mental resources that you can then devote to doing well on the test.

So that brings us to our First Big Fear: the fear of repeating past failures.

Logically, everyone knows that failure is inevitable every once in a while. "To err is human." Wrote Alexander Pope. And the realm of Calculus finals is no exception.

But we're not always logical. In fact, human beings have an inherent negativity bias, a tendency to remember and give more emotional weight to negative events rather than positive ones.

And this is a feature of the brain that's pretty useful when it comes to survival. After all, remembering which mushrooms made you sick or not to try to shake hands with a tiger is pretty important for survival. 

But the negativity bias doesn't limit itself to poisonous mushrooms or tigers. Any negative event can create feelings of apprehension and fear when it comes up again.

So even though almost everyone does poorly on tests and exams at least once in a while, when it happens to you, you might naturally fear that it'll happen again the next time around.

So how do you actually beat this negativity bias? Well, first realize that you're not defined by your past successes or failures. Despite what that insidious part of your brain might try to tell you.

While the path you're on right now is certainly, at least in part, a product of your past choices, it's not a path of a predetermined destination. At any time, you can choose to things differently than you did in the past.

If you're gonna do that, you need to start by analyzing your past mistakes and gathering as much information about them as you can. After all, you could only improve if you know what you were doing wrong before. 

Let's go to the Thought Bubble.

  Thought Bubble (4:04)

Elite chess players understand this concept really well. While they spend a lot of their practice time playing games and studying the openings and end-games of players at higher ranks, they also dedicate a ton of time to analyzing their own past mistakes. 

Especially the ones they lost. By doing so, they construct and correct bad habits and uncover patterns in their playing, which can then be tweaked or improved in the future. 

So, take a cue from these players, as well as from elite performers in pretty much any other discipline, be it opera singers or figure skaters, and review your past exams to see how you can improve.

Start by getting your hands on a copy of your past exam. If your teacher doesn't usually hand these out or let you take them home, talk to them after class and ask if you can at least look it over. And while you're talking with them, also ask for feedback. Especially if your exam contained short answer or essay questions where there's no concrete answer.

Once you've got a past exam in your hands, review the mistakes you made. And don't just acknowledge your mistakes, for each incorrect question, make sure you understand why your answer was the wrong one.

If it was a complex problem like a math equation, identify the exact point where you made a mistake. Additionally, make sure you know what the right answer was and why it was right.

Before you move on, cross-reference the question with your notes as well. If you're gonna be tested on the question again, like in a final exam, highlight the section in your notes so you know it's important. You can also create quiz questions for later review.

Overall, shoot for mastery over the material so you don't make the same mistake again.

Thanks Thought Bubble!

 NewSection (5:14)

The details of those incorrect questions aren't the only things that deserve reflection. You also need to figure out why you made the mistakes in the first place.

Ask yourself: Was I unprepared? And if so, why was I unprepared? Did I simply not put enough time into reviewing? Did I ignore the study guide? Or did I use an ineffective study method?

If you feel that you were prepared, then maybe something went wrong during the actual exam. Maybe you rushed through and made a lot of careless errors. Or maybe you let time get away from you and you didn't actually finish the whole exam.

Or maybe that creepy A.I. from Ghost in the Shell hacked your brain in the middle of the exam and forced you to spend the whole time licking your paper. These things happen.

Whatever the reason was, don't let it get you down too much. Remember that failure is a great teacher. And it's often a better one than success. Since we remember our failures so well, every one is a lesson and an opportunity.

But you need to make sure that you use that opportunity by making a plan for how you'll avoid the mistake in the future. Just saying "I'll do better next time" isn't enough. You need to know exactly how you're gonna do better.

And that's not all you need to know. In fact, the more you can learn about your exam in all its facets, the more comfortable with it you're gonna be. This is the way to overcome the second of our Big Fears: the fear of the unknown.

People naturally fear what they don't understand. And, in general, this is a good thing. It's another one of those pieces of brain programming that's useful for survival and most other animals share it with us. 

When I visited New York City for the first time several years ago, I noticed that the squirrels seemed much less afraid of people than the squirrels back home in Iowa. But that's because these big-city squirrels had a lot of experience dealing with people and it was mostly positive.

So try to gain as much experience about the upcoming exam as you can. Now, we talked a lot about how to do this on the last video on preparing for tests, but the general principle here is try to replicate the test conditions when you're studying.

Do your best to get access to practice tests and study guides and create quizzes out of your notes to fill in the gaps. Additionally, spend some time studying in a classroom that looks and feels similar to the one you'll be tested in, and quiz yourself under the same time constraints that you'll face during the exam.

You're gonna make that test feel like a familiar old friend when you actually face it. As Scott Berkun, a professional public speaker put it, "By the time I present to an actual audience, it's not really the first time at all." That's the feeling you're going for.

And that brings us to the last of our Big Three Fears: the fear of the stakes.

One of the biggest sources of test anxiety is the feeling that this test means everything. It's gonna define your overall grade, where you'll be able to go to college, and whether or not you'll get to work for Elon Musk someday.

But, in reality, you're rarely gonna come across a test or a situation that you can't recover from in the case that things go wrong.

Trust me, I actually failed a test in college once. And Nick over there actually failed an entire class. Twice. And even worse, I was once fired from a job. And in both cases, it was totally my fault. But I learned my lessons and made sure I'd never make the same mistakes again and I moved on.

And even if things don't go perfectly for you, you'll be able to do the exact same thing. And if that's not comforting enough, try reframing the test in your mind. Think of it as yet another learning opportunity rather than as a judgement. 

After all, a test challenges you to recall what you've learned and, as we've already discussed, active recall strengthens your mastery over the material. And, at least for me, viewing a test this way makes it seem a lot less scary

Lastly, keep in your mind that anxiety isn't always something that you need to try and deal with on your own. If you have anxiety that's majorly affecting your life, don't hesitate to ask a professional for help.

Hopefully you found this week's video to be helpful. Next week, we're gonna switch gears in talking about how to write great research papers and essays.

See you then.

 Outro (8:19)

Crash Course Study Skills is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Misoula, Montana. And it's made with the help of all these nice people.

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