Test-Taking Anxiety and How to Cope

Sometimes I work with students who perform well during our lessons, but who struggle when it comes to actually taking the test. It turns out the reason for this might be genetic. 
When we experience stress, our prefrontal cortex is flooded with dopamine. Some of us are coded with a gene that slowly removes the dopamine, while others have a variant that rapidly removes it. The prefrontal cortex is critical for planning and decision-making, and it performs best when an optimal level of dopamine is maintained. Normally, on many cognitive tests, people with the slow variant of the gene perform better. But in stressful, high-stakes situations the opposite happens: those with the fast variant do better. Thus people with the slow variant have been dubbed Worriers, and those with the fast variant, Warriors. 
However, being a Worrier does not mean you will inevitably be a victim of chronic underperformance in stressful situations. In one of the studies mentioned in the article, Warriors with the lowest level recreational pilot's license outperformed Worriers, BUT when researchers analyzed the performance of pilots the next level up, they found that Worriers did much better. Similarly, in a study of Navy SEAL pilots, one third of the expert pilots were Worriers - significantly higher than the number in the general population. So Worriers can be warriors too! The key for Worriers is practice.
Test-taking is stressful for everyone, and for some of us it appears that stress may be less helpful than for others. I am a big advocate of practice tests regardless of your genetic predisposition, but it appears that they are even more important if you are a Worrier. Through repeated exposure to the particular stresses caused by the test taking environment, you will develop coping strategies so that by the time you take the actual test, your body won't get in the way of you doing your best. 
So Worriers, don't be discouraged - just remember to practice, practice, practice! 


Hi Peter - I like your blog as I have grade 4 boys who are just beginning to show some test anxiety. I found a book online, "How not to choke on tests" that I'll be using as a "workbook" with each one individually. They all know I do practice, practice, and more practice with them; they don't seem to mind it a bit. Thanks for your indo- JA McKay, Bradenton, FL


Peter A.

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