ABC’s for taking a test

Taking tests should be easy and simple. We shouldn’t worry about taking tests, but most of us do. It’s called “test anxiety” (see this link also) or “test phobia.” The medical term for this is “Social Anxiety Disorder” (SAD). I like using the three letters SAD to represent this, because it is sad when test anxiety keeps us from doing our best. Rose Oliver calls us a “test-addicted society.” In “Overcoming Test Anxiety,” she argues that

  1. Test anxiety is evoked and maintained by irrational beliefs and irrational demands.
  2. The perceived threat of harm stems from the anticipated inability to satisfy these irrational demands, and the catastrophizing of the consequences.
  3. The catastrophic consequence is primarily to one’s feeling of self-worth, which is irrationally equated with the test outcome.
  4. Irrational beliefs, irrational demands and catastrophic predictions are over-learned responses (habits) which are rehearsed before and during a test.
  5. Blocking on a test is an avoidance mechanism which is momentarily anxiety-reducing, but serves to maintain both the anxiety and the irrational belief system.
  6. Since irrational, self-defeating beliefs are learned habits, they can be unlearned.
  7. New, self-enhancing beliefs and behaviors can be learned.

In summary, we are afraid when we take tests because if we fail, we appear stupid. We are afraid of being ridiculed or laughed at. We are afraid that parents or friends will think less of us. We are afraid because we may not be prepared. When our fears overcome us, we become anxious and we can’t think clearly. Taking the test becomes an intense emotional experience with negative consequences when our fears turn into reality. We fail. We get a bad grade. Our parents and friends laugh at us. The next time we take a test our fear is even greater.

Taking a test shouldn’t be hard. Nearly always, we take tests for positive purposes. It’s important to find out how much we know. If we are really interested in learning, we should test ourselves all the time. But when we stress out some of us resort to cheating.

Cheating on tests increases our fear, because we might get caught. After looking at a lot of data, I have concluded that students who cheat generally do not do well on exams. Besides the fear of getting caught, there are a few reasons why cheaters struggle. First, cheaters don’t usually prepare well, so they’re not ready to take the test. Second, cheaters often have negative feelings about themselves and that’s why they need to “cheat to succeed.” Third, they often cheat with their friends who are struggling the same way.

We break the cycle of cheating and test phobia by confronting our fears and resolving to be academically honest. When we are prepared we will not fear. As one student told me, “Academic honesty means that I truly want to learn. If I cheat, I cheat myself out of learning.” Test taking should be simple. It should be as simple as learning your ABC’s. I have given you some simple suggestions below to overcome this. I hope that SAD will not overpower you the next time you take a test.

ABC's for taking a test

If you enjoyed the above article, I have written other thoughts on ethical test taking that you might be interested in:

A discussion of stealing test questions and its potential consequences: What’s the big deal with sharing a few test questions?

A fable in two parts concerning Santa’s elves and cheating: The Discontent of Santa’s Lazy Elf and Trouble in Section K

Thoughts about what cheating is and what the rules are for taking a test: The rules for taking a test

I have put the above ABC’s into a PDF file that you can download here.

Dennis Maynes

Chief Scientist, Caveon Test Security

1 Comment

  • This was a very clever and informative blog entry. Kudos.

    My only comment is that often the test stakes are much higher than getting laughed at or feeling like a failure. As one who has taken (and fortunately passed) 3 bar exams in 3 different States, I know how threatening the possibility of test failure can be. Failure on any one of them would have had serious consequences.

    I remember well going to breakfast before the first bar exam with some friends who were also taking the exam, and half way through the meal, one guy said he was so nervous his food tasted like paste. Another candidate in the test room spilled coffee on his answer sheet seconds before the test began, and there were no extras! My friend who didn’t enjoy his breakfast passed the exam, but I don’t know about the other guy.

Leave a Reply