Carnegie Mellon University

Student Academic Success Center

Office of the Vice Provost for Education

I don’t know how to use systematic desensitization – a gradual exposure therapy to test taking conditions - to get rid of my test anxiety.

When you visualize taking an exam your heart may start to beat faster, your stomach my feel sick, or perhaps you just have an overall feeling of dread. This is not how you want to feel while studying – or even worse, how you want to feel when actually taking the test. Through a method called systematic desensitization, however, you can associate positive rather than negative feelings with exams. Click the link below to read more.
Systematic desensitization is based on two core principles: first, that an individual cannot experience anxiety (such as test-taking anxiety) while completely relaxed, and second, that when a person vividly visualizes a scene while completely relaxed, the mental image evokes feelings of the real scene. In simpler terms, your mind cannot distinguish a real experience from one that is vividly imagined.

This can have positive or negative implications. If you suffer from test anxiety and visualize yourself about to take an exam, you may feel tension and stress that mirror what you feel during an actual exam. This can impede your studying, or at least make thinking about and taking exams unnecessarily difficult. On the other hand, if you learn to relax while visualizing yourself taking an exam, you can learn to relax while actually taking an exam.

Here are some steps to follow when trying systematic desensitization:
  1. Determine your hierarchy of anxiety-producing situations related to test taking, so that you can gradually address your least to most difficult scenarios and fears. (Scenarios may include not finishing the test in time, getting sick during the test, not knowing how to answer a multiple-part question, or failing the test.)
  2. Create your hierarchy here:
  3. Learn how to reach a state of deep relaxation by using specific muscle-relaxing exercises and/or imagining a scene of perfect relaxation. (See solutions under “I don’t know how to relax.”)
  4. While completely relaxed, visualize anxiety-producing situations, beginning with the lowest, least-threatening one of your hierarchy. Eventually, you will be able to imagine the worst scenes of your hierarchy without feeling anxious.

I don’t know how to relax.

Relaxing, whether through meditation, exercise, listening to music, or spending time with friends can be difficult to do when you have a million things on your mind. Specific relaxation techniques can be used to help turn your mind “off,” dispelling your worries and allowing you to approach tasks with calm. Remember that any relaxation technique must be practiced 5 to 10 times before you can use it effortlessly and effectively.

Also, check out UPMC’s site on their Healthy Lifestyle Program.

To help yourself relax, try the following techniques. It is best to practice each technique by getting comfortable and closing your eyes.
  1. Tense and relax 10 key muscle groups. Combine muscle relaxation with a self-talk cue, such as “Relax now.”
  2. Focus awareness on breathing, completely inhaling and exhaling. Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling the breath start in your abdomen and work its way to the top of your head. Reverse the process as you exhale through your mouth. Combine a self-talk counting cue with breathing such as, “Relax one, relax two…”
  3. Picture a relaxing scene - imaginary or real - with good associations. For example, picture yourself relaxing on a Caribbean beach, the sun warm and the surf softly rolling in the background. Combine this image with self-talk, such as, “I really enjoy this,” “This is wonderful,” or, “I feel so relaxed.”
  4. Meditate. We promise the process can be simple. Sit up straight with both feet on the floor. Close your eyes. Focus your attention on reciting - out loud or silently - a positive mantra such as “I feel at peace.” Place one hand on your belly to synch the mantra with your breaths. Let any distracting thoughts float by like clouds.
Check out our “Fast Fact” for more ways to beat test anxiety. [pdf]

I don’t know what I should do before I begin studying.

Studying for an exam that covers weeks’ worth of class material can be overwhelming. Sometimes, the hardest part of studying for an exam may be choosing where and when to start. Organizing your materials and developing a plan of attack can make studying more manageable and less intimidating. Remember when you learned your ABC’s, and you had to practice them for quite a while? Well, learning new material for a course also takes practice. Don’t wait until the final comes to begin studying; review material often, which will strengthen the network in the brain and allow for recall.
Whether studying for a quiz or final exam, the best way to begin is to make a list of everything the test will cover. Then, estimate the time you will need to spend studying each topic. Allocate the most time for the most difficult topics, but don’t neglect the easier ones - the last thing you want to do is miss points on a problem you know how to do, simply because you did not review it. Once you have created a topic list, gather all of your materials: old homework assignments, quizzes and exams, class and printed notes, papers, pens, calculators, and any other tools you may need. And finally, evaluate and pick your study space. (To learn about finding a good study space, visit our section, “I don’t know how to find a good study space.”) You’re now ready to start studying!

I don’t know what I should do the week before my exam.

If your exam is a week away, it may seem like you have plenty of time to study. You’re likely well aware, however, that the days quickly fly by - before you know it, you’ll be sitting to take the exam. It’s important to plan your time efficiently and start studying early, preventing all-nighters and last-minute cramming.
Make an “essentials” review sheet; if you could take an 8 ½ by 11” sheet of paper into the exam, what would you put on it? This review sheet will help you to decide what is most likely to appear on the exam and can be an excellent reference throughout the week.

If you benefit from studying with others, choose your study groups wisely and keep them small. Come prepared to the group meeting and have defined goals; don’t be afraid to abort the group if it is not helpful. (To learn more about study groups, visit our section “I’m having trouble managing group work.”)

Additionally, practice exams are some of the most useful resources in your study arsenal if used wisely. We advise taking practice exams in a test-taking environment: timed, closed book, and in a quiet location. Practice exams are most beneficial if you have already significantly studied the material, as they can identify your weaknesses. Even if you understand how a solution to a problem is reached, you may not be able to recreate that solution with your notes and book out of sight.

And finally, use your down time wisely. Plan your time, especially large blocks of time, and set a regular sleep schedule. Instead of procrastinating and losing precious moments to unnecessary diversions, participate in activities you genuinely find fun and relaxing.

I don’t know what I should do the night before my exam.

The night before an exam is usually the night students dread most. Some students have the unhealthy philosophy, “My exam is at 8:00am, and it’s only midnight, so I have 8 full hours to study.” The later it gets, however, the less information you are likely to retain. Therefore, it’s important to stay calm and use these final few hours wisely.
Review last minute material, but remember, this does not mean review every word of the textbook, every slide of the professor’s lecture notes, or every problem in your homework. Focus on the most critical information or concepts you commonly confuse or mix up. Right before you go to bed, read through your “essentials” review sheet that you created while studying to cement the most important concepts. Prepare all the tools and materials you may need for the exam: calculator, pencils, pens, cheat sheets if allowed, etc. Eat a good dinner and go to sleep early - trust us, it makes a big difference! Set an alarm for at least 45 minutes to an hour before the exam, and if you have a hard time getting up in the morning, ask a friend to make sure you’re awake.

It’s also important to not panic. Remind yourself that you have studied the material, avoid people who are overly nervous, and practice calming exercises. Go for a run, listen to music, talk to your parents, read a book, or get dinner with a friend. Remember that even your worst-case scenario isn’t the end of the world!

I don’t know what I should do the day of my exam.

It’s finally here: the exam. Do you study more, or close the books? Skip breakfast, or wake up early to get a good meal? It’s important to make the most use of the final few hours before your exam, so you approach the test as confident and positive as possible.
Whether you have an exam early in the morning or late in the day, it’s important to eat a balanced diet. Don’t skip breakfast, stay hydrated, and avoid caffeine if it makes you wired or tense. Use the restroom before going into the exam, as different professors have different policies about leaving the room. Try to avoid bringing notes to the exam; if you have to have something to look at, bring just your “essentials” review sheet. Wear layers in case the thermostat of the room is broken; the last thing you want is to be distracted by an uncomfortable temperature. Arrive to the exam about 10 minutes early - any later, and you may be rushed, while any earlier, you may have too much time to kill with nerves or anticipation. And finally, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that soon the exam will be behind you!
Also, see our “Fast Fact” on exam taking tips. [pdf]

I don’t know how to best take my exam.

You look around and it seems like everyone is flying through the test, confidently writing answers and turning pages. But you’re sitting there, unsure of where to begin, overwhelmed by the length of the exam, or faced with a problem you don’t know how to answer. What do you do?
First, read and listen to directions. Underline the parts of questions that are most important and that require answers. Then, develop a plan of attack; skim the entire exam before starting and budget your time. Answer the questions that you know first, and mark, skip, and come back to those you don’t. We also advise prioritizing the highest point value sections; you don’t want to spend too much time on a difficult question that’s a small percentage of the exam.

Also, remember the well-known guideline: only change an answer if you are certain. This especially pertains to multiple choice or true/false questions that are designed to make you second-guess yourself.

Make sure that you answer all questions – you have no chance at partial credit if you leave a problem blank. Reserve the last few minutes of the exam time for review; proofread your writing for spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes (if applicable) and check math answers for careless errors (from top to bottom, time permitting.)

I don’t know what I should do after I complete my exam.

The exam is over, and you are ready to delete all memory of it from your conscience. Probably not the best idea. Although we certainly suggest letting it go and focusing on your next task, it’s also important to analyze your test errors.
After the exam, find a way to relieve your stress: exercise, relax, or reward yourself. Put the exam behind you and focus on your next challenge. But when your exam is returned, review your mistakes and determine your types of test errors:
  1. Do not throw the exam in the garbage – it is a learning tool.
  2. Ask yourself these three questions:
    • Would I have been able to produce the missed information on this question? What was the problem, what was the cause of not knowing the answer, and what is the solution? Maybe the problem was that you missed part of the question, and the cause was you didn’t read accurately. The solution might be to use backslashes to divide the question.
    • Did I recognize the test question when I read it? Either I didn’t study the material or I didn’t recall the material because I didn’t learn it well enough.
    • Am I pleased with my study strategy? If you are happy with your performance, write down your study strategy so you can use it for the next exam. If you didn’t do well on the test, still write down your study strategy. This will allow you to visualize how you studied and identify any possible gaps in your strategy.
Types of test errors:
  1. Misread direction errors
    • Directions are skipped, read too quickly or misunderstood.
  2. Careless errors
    • Identify what the specific careless error was to avoid repeating it.
  3. Concept errors
    • Properties or principles required to complete a problem are not fully understood.
  4. Application errors
    • A concept is understood, but not applied correctly to a problem (usually found in work problems or when deducing formulas).
  5. Test-taking errors
    • Missing more questions in the first-third, second-third, or last-third of the exam.
    • Not completing a problem to its last step.
    • Changing test answers from correct to incorrect ones.
    • Spending too much time on one problem.
    • Leaving answers blank.
  6. Study errors
    • Studying the wrong type of material or not spending enough time on pertinent material.
    • Not reviewing a test after it is returned to identify your errors and prevent them next time.
Then, when it’s time for the next exam, you’ll know which errors you’ll have to take particular care to avoid. Keep a file of all of your exams and don’t hesitate to ask your professor if you don’t understand the solution to a problem.

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