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Managing Test Anxiety On Multiple Choice Exams

by S. Merritt on September 6, 2009

Test anxiety can be one of the most crippling problems for students, and it’s particularly common with the multiple choice question format. Multiple choice tests are often “question heavy” – they have more questions than time – and the questions are frequently designed to create stress and confusion.

We’ve all felt moments of panic in our lives. Remember the symptoms? Dry mouth, sweaty palms, weak knees, blank mind….hang on! Blank mind?

It’s true. Nothing will drain all that hard earned knowledge from your mind like a little panic, thanks to a handy little apparatus in our brain called the amygdala. It’s that sucker that’s responsible for the “fight or flight” response to stress. And although it’s deadly during exams, don’t knock it – it’s what allowed your ancestors to survive long enough to procreate, and have offspring like you.

When faced with danger (stress), the amygdala takes over, rerouting the vital resources of the body to either fight or flight. And regardless of which choice is made, the result is generally the same: the supply chain to the brain is cut back so the muscles can fulfill their crucial role of keeping you alive.

So, when you panic during an exam, your brain gets shut down. Simple as that.  And that panic seems to have an even more negative effect during multiple choice exams.

If you’re using the Cycle method to write your exam, you’re already a long way toward reducing test anxiety, but here are a few others:

Remember that Multiple ChoiceTest-Taking is a Skill

It’s true. You need to do more than prepare for psychology, chemistry, finance or whatever your subject is. You need to master the test format itself. Writing multiple choice question exams is a skill, and it’s one you can get better at.

More than any other piece of study or test-taking advice, this is the one area that separates the succesful from the not-so-successful. If you change nothing about your studying, and simply learn to excel at the multiple choice format, your grades will improve.  End of story.

Expect the Unexpected

The techniques here will help manage what they call “test anxiety”, but the best trick I’ve found is to expect to be flustered.

Remember that the multiple choice test in front of you was designed by someone else. You can’t anticipate all the questions. On top of this, many exams are designed not just to test your knowledge, but to deceive you. To push your limits.

So forget about it. Go with the flow. Expect that there will be many questions you can’t answer on your first pass. Expect that there may be material you swear was never in any book or lecture. Just use the cycle system and work your way through.

Hit Your Stride

If you can’t forget about it – and really, who can? – then believe this: your ability to answer multiple choice questions improves dramatically over the course of the exam. If you’ve ever participated in any kind of physical endurance sport, like distance running, you’ll notice that it takes a while to hit your stride. Distance runners often feel better several miles into the race then they do at the start, and the same principle applies to multiple choice tests. If you start to do questions and you feel a sense of panic, just keep at it. Skip the ones you can’t answer, and go back to them later.

Multiple choice tests often require a certain set of logic processes. Your brain has to compare, contrast, eliminate and assess true false characteristics. It has to process if/then scenarios, and deal with those icky “none of the above/all of the above” logic games. The first few questions sometimes seem tough because you haven’t hit your stride, but the more your brain uses these processes, the easier they become to apply to successive questions.

Use the multi-pass system with the belief that your brain will shift more and more into a mode that allows you to answer the questions, and retrieve the information you studied.

Write Your Own Exam

Picture this. You’re two hours into a three hour exam. You’re pressed for time – it’s a long test, challenging in length and content. You know it’s going to be tight.

And the guy beside you stands up, hands in his papers, and leaves. Just like that.

How can he be done? Ohmigod I’m a failure. Gaaaccck! I’m never going to…

Sound familiar? The key to learning how to compete with your peers is to not compete. Forget about it. Just like you run your own race, you need to write your own test. For all you know, the genius-speed-reader-scholarship-pro who left at the two hour mark is outside crying because he only answered a third of the questions.

Stay focused on your own work. Stay as long as you need to. Do what you need to do to work the test in your favor.

Positive Attitude

No matter what happens believe that you can and will do well on your exam. Write it on your hand if you have to, but believe it.

There’s a strong connection between confidence and memory. If you believe you can remember something, then your chances of doing so are much higher.

It’s common for students plagued by multiple choice text anxiety to operate in “reverse” – they feel they need good results on an exam in order to gain confidence. You need to find the confidence first.

Practice for Real

Use practice multiple choice tests, and put yourself in an exam scenario. Give yourself a tight time limit, and write a complete exam from start to finish.

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