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October 10, 2014 1:56 PM   Subscribe

A close relative is in a demanding STEM program. Test-taking causes an increase in anxiety, naturally, which in turn seems to put the squeeze on those tubes by which information moves from brain to paper. Strategies for warding off or alleviating this sensation would be appreciated.

Obviously, having a perfect understanding of the subject and an unparalleled ability to convey that perfect understanding would ease the situation. Let's assume for the sake of this question, though, that neither of those is reachable, and that what we're trying to do is to allow the testee to deal with the situation as it exists. What works for you?
posted by bullatony to Education (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There are therapists who specialize in math anxiety. Not a lot of them, though and they can be hard to find. Some schools have programs and counselors for these things. Usually, by the time one is taking a test, it's too late. They could use stress reduction exercises but that's not likely to be enough.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:17 PM on October 10, 2014

Subjecting myself to high-pressure self-testing helped. It resulted in me eventually becoming desensitized to the pressure.

Before looking at the actual exam, I also would write down notes for myself while my mind was still clear. Notes would include formulas, taxonomies, molecular mechanisms, reactions, etc. Then, during the test, if I was getting mixed up, I could refer back to my own notes.

I'd also take a few minutes to look through the entire exam and pick out which problems to do first because they were easiest for me. If a question is too perplexing, move along. Doing the test in order doesn't always make sense. Skip around.

Identifying what the issue is also would help. Is the testee's mind going blank? Are they running out of time? Are they simply unprepared? Are they not understanding what the question is asking? Are they unable to focus completely for the entire testing period? All of these issues will have different solutions.
posted by quince at 2:24 PM on October 10, 2014

Testing anxiety is definitely the sort of thing that university counseling programs are good for, because it comes up a lot and it behooves the university to be able to help people deal with it and produce more exceptional gradutes, you know? So, that's one thing. Generally, it's important to practice relaxing beforehand, at times when you're not under intense stress, so that a certain pattern of behavior--a deep breathing exercise, say--has associations that aren't just related to exams. Breathing exercises and visualizations are particularly good because they're not disruptive to others in a testing environment. I find that going for a walk beforehand also helps to burn off a certain amount of nervous energy so that I feel less restless in the moment.
posted by Sequence at 2:25 PM on October 10, 2014

Universities will have learning counselors on staff who are paid to help students deal with test anxiety. I have sent students there and they send me new, more fabulous, students back. He should go to whoever does here's-the-service-you-didn't-know-existed-that-you-need pointing for students at his university: dean, registrar, academic advising, whatever. It most likely is already available to him for free and is way better than tips off the internet.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:25 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

If the anxiety is severe/ significant enough, your relative could look into getting additional time on the test.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:37 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here are the two things that got me through two STEM degrees : a test taking strategy that worked for me, and lots of practice.

I emphasize practice because even though STEM is all about the ability to solve problems, most problems can be broken down into problems or analogs of problems you've solved before. It helps a lot if you have created a kind of mental toolbox for problem sets. My approach to acquiring this toolbox was to re-do the problem sets and any practice tests at least once before every exam.

Test taking strategy:
1) Bring a watch. While the passage of time can make you panic, it can also help you move on when you get stuck. This brings me to step 2.
2) Start by scanning the entire test. How many problems are there? Assuming that all the problems are equally difficult, what is the maximum amount of time you can spend being stuck on a single problem before you won't have time to finish the others (divide maximum amount of time available by number of problems)?
3) Go from start to finish as quickly as possible. If you're stuck for more than the time you calculated in step 2, move on.
4) Then, from finish to start, re-do the problems and check your answers (or do them if you didn't have an answer the first time). I find that step 3 makes it easier for my brain to relax into problem solving mode, so by this point I find that I am ready to solve the ones I missed in the first pass.

For steps 3 to 4 I've heard a lot of different strategies; one that's common is easiest to hardest. However, I find I tend to spin out about the "hard" problems, so forcing myself to go in order eliminates the time I waste trying to decide what is and isn't hard.
posted by rhythm and booze at 2:41 PM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nootropics. Specifically a combination of caffeine and L-theanine before test time.
posted by jingzuo at 2:52 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

rhythm and booze's test taking strategy is mine exactly. One of my chemistry professors used to say that your brain is so powerful that even if all you do is read a question and skip it, you'll have figured something out about it without noticing by the time you come back around to it again. It's not unusual for me to loop through an exam six or seven times before I finish.

One thing I've noticed in my classmates and in students I tutor is that some students who are otherwise wonderful and facile with the material never practice recall skills, and some do a little but never under test conditions. A very powerful way to prepare for STEM (or any kind, really) exams is to simply sit down at a clean desk with a blank sheet of paper in a quiet room, set a timer, and write down everything you can recall about the topic at hand. Pulling information out of memory unprompted is exactly what you often need to do on a test, and you have absolutely no preparation to do it if you only ever read your notes, rewrite your notes, write outlines, highlight the book, or even do practice problems with your notes open.

Studying way in advance also helps me keep anxiety levels low. I study every day, but I start doing exam-specific preparation 10-14 days before test day. Everyone's common sense says this is the right thing to do because it's responsible and yadda yadda yadda, but it really helps me because when dinner time rolls around the night before the exam, I close my books and put them away. From dinner time until after the test the next day, I do not study. At all. I relax and prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the test. Because I do so much prep so far in advance, and practice recall consistently, I can afford to give up those cramming hours and put them towards my mental health instead.

Finally, when it comes to test day itself, I sit in the front of the classroom to minimize distractions (other students in front of me would be the distractions otherwise). That is my only test day trick, though... I believe preparation is the key to success and minimizing anxiety, and you can't fix that on the day of the exam.
posted by telegraph at 3:28 PM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

The standard advice is to do practice exam problems in a simulated exam setting, with only the notes & resources allowed in the actual exam. This gets you out of the situation where you know EXACTLY where the relevant fact is in your textbook, but can't muster the details in time, and generally familiarizes you with exam-like settings so they aren't as scary.

Original comment was on a question I have open in another tab: Grandma Got Stem has a nice mix of profiles of modern women in science and historical figures. (But maybe it's a fun link here too?)
posted by yarntheory at 4:58 PM on October 10, 2014

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