Test anxiety is no stranger to many students. In fact, it has been estimated that between 10 and 40 percent of all students are affected by test anxiety (McDonald, 2010), and these percentages are only increasing with time. The all-too-familiar and uncontrollable development of clammy palms, the feeling that your heart is pounding out of your chest, and the deep and uncomfortable pit in the bottom of your stomach are common symptoms of test anxiety. Beyond the physical symptoms of test anxiety, there are emotional symptoms that include feelings of self doubt as well as stress (Healthline, 2017). Although some arousal can lead to increased performance, the Yerkes-Dodson law explains how excessive arousal, as in the case of test anxiety, can cause diminished performance (Cherry, 2020). All this to say that test anxiety can be extremely detrimental to those who experience it, both in terms of symptoms and ultimate performance.

As someone who has experienced test anxiety throughout my life, there are certain images and feelings that have remained consistent in my test-taking experiences. There are the minutes before the exam, when all the students anxiously rush to their seats and chatter softly prior to being handed the test. There are the tense moments of silence as the test administrator passes out examination papers. There are the pangs of anxiety as the proctor calls out how much time is remaining during the exam. . Finally, there is the intense feeling of stress when other students begin to stand up and hand in their tests; the questioning of whether or not your pace is on par with other students. These are all aspects of traditional test taking that I have struggled with from elementary school through college— until now.

COVID-19 has completely changed the way we take examinations, and many students are currently navigating the novel challenges that accompany a predominantly virtual learning environment. I wish I could say that I no longer experience test anxiety in a virtual classroom, but that would be a lie. The causes of anxiety may be slightly different than before, yet it is still there. I vividly remember the feeling of relief I had when Cornell University first transitioned to virtual learning due to COVID, and I learned that I would be taking my exams online. The idea of taking my exam online, from the comfort of my home, in an open-notes format seemed significantly less stressful than the transitional in-person environment I had struggled with throughout my life as a student. However, online test-taking undeniably comes with a unique set of challenges. 

Rachel Katz, a junior at Cornell University majoring in Biological Sciences, explained how taking examinations in her living environment can be both difficult and stressful. “There are so many variables that aren’t in your control. From living with roommates to dealing with unpredictable wifi, there are new aspects of online test-taking that make it challenging to focus and do your best.”

Furthermore, there are difficulties associated with remote learning in general that make online test taking more challenging. Many students have reported that it is more difficult to pay attention to class in an online setting, and Jacob Levy, a junior at Cornell University majoring in Computer Science, shares that sentiment. He specifically explained how having online open-note exams have made him feel less incentivized to take the same caliber of notes during his classes. He explained, “It’s difficult to pay super close attention to class notes when you know you can easily go back to the material later, even during exams.”

While online test-taking is a relatively new concept, it is very possible that it is here to stay. Many academic professionals have taken measures to make online testing work for them, and the convenience factor of online-examinations may make them appealing to some long-term. Given this new reality, young minds must adapt to face the new challenges that come with online exams. While the anxiety that comes with in-person test-taking is different from the anxiety caused by online test-taking, it is undeniable that test anxiety is still a problem that many students will continue to encounter. 

However, just as there are various methods for improving test anxiety for in-person tests, there are ways to assuage online test-taking anxiety as well. Based on my own experiences of online test-taking anxiety, I have compiled a few tips that may be helpful. This generation of school-aged students have demonstrated their ability to adjust to the new circumstances posed by COVID-19 with grace and optimism, and I am confident that the transition to online test-taking will be no different. 

Tips for online test-taking that have helped me:
  • Keep a notepad and pencil on your desk
    • You can take notes about specific confusing questions or write down your thoughts— especially if you miss the physical element of in-person testing.
  • Take a break from screen-time before the exam
    • Online exams can be long and tiring, and it can be uncomfortable to stare at a screen for hours. I have found it helpful to try to avoid using my computer in the few hours before my exam so that I feel fresh and alert during the test.
  • Meditate
    • This has helped me before in person tests as well! Headspace is a great resource. 
  • Sign onto the exam site early
    • This is a great strategy to provide you with plenty of time to ensure you have proper internet access.
  • Find a quiet place
    • Whether this means making sure your roommates can be quiet during your exam or reserving a space in the library for the duration of your exam, you should try to find a space most conducive to your success.
  • Have a backup plan
    • In case of an internet outage, it might give you peace of mind to have the email addresses of your professors and TAs somewhere easily accessible.
  • Get a good night’s sleep
    • Feeling well rested will help you feel alert and prepared for your exam.
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