We have all experienced it, that feeling of dread and foreboding before taking an exam; a myriad of scenarios running through your head outlining the worst possible outcomes.
These feelings of testing anxiety are very real and can have detrimental effects on an operator’s exam performance. In fact, a recent survey of operators conducted by the Ohio Water Environment Association found that nearly 30 percent of respondents cited testing anxiety as a main cause for not passing the exam.
To examine why testing anxiety is such a prevalent phenomenon, especially in high stakes vocational testing such as an operator certification exam, I spoke with Dr. Ian MacFarlane of Elizabethtown College. Dr. MacFarlane is an Assistant Professor of Psychology, as well as a clinical psychologist. With more than 1,000 hours of therapy work with college students and adults, he has helped countless individuals recognize and overcome testing anxiety.
Why do Operators worry?
Taking a certification exam is different from a high school biology or chemistry final: the stakes are exponentially higher. Psychologically, operators may feel that taking an exam related to their everyday job duties raises a question about their professional competence. This spark of anxiety will be fanned further if a passing score on the exam is mandated for their current job or required for promotion potential.
When asked how test anxiety manifests, Dr. MacFarlane pointed to both cognitive and physical (or somatic) symptoms stating, “The most detrimental effects of anxiety are cognitive. The human brain is limited to a certain amount of processing power at one time. The more your brain is occupied with the anxiety of the exam, the less ability it has to process the exam content. It would be akin to going into a wrestling match with one hand tied behind your back. Anxiety is a ‘mental suck’ or leech draining your brain power and limiting your ability to recall information or facts that might be as familiar to you as the names of your parents.”
One particularly common manifestation of testing anxiety Dr. MacFarlane cited is detachment–an operator is likely to avoid the discomfort of test anxiety by simply not thinking about the exam. Just as your body will pass out instead of coping with a lack of oxygen, you are likely to avoid the discomfort of test anxiety by simply not thinking about the exam. He noted, “This can be quite detrimental as this avoidance loop can cause you to disengage from exam preparatory practices which can seriously hinder performance on the exam.”
Other effects of anxiety can be seen as physiological symptoms such as nausea, stomach cramps, or lightheadedness. To explain this, Dr. MacFarlane offered, “Our bodies lack the ability to differentiate between real life and mental simulations. So, if we are extremely worried or anxious about something, our minds can create physiological manifestations that are directly associated with the negative mental simulations.”
Why do some operators who excel in their jobs perform poorly on the exam?
Even though the exam is measuring the knowledge and application of tasks that an operator performs daily, while in the testing environment, they lose the contextual cues that would normally assist them in everyday operations.
Without those additional sources of information, operators must work harder to draw parallels between the tasks on the exam and the tasks they perform in their job. In other words, because an operator is not being tested in the environment in which he/she normally performs a task (a water or wastewater system), it can be difficult to recognize and solve the same problem in a test environment.
What can operators do to help with testing anxiety?
Practice, Practice, Practice
There is no better way of reducing test anxiety than to spend an adequate amount of time preparing and practicing. Test-taking is a skill—one that must be practiced and honed. Dr. MacFarlane noted that in many cases, due to inefficient study techniques, people have a tendency to work on areas in which they are already proficient and to avoid areas that could use improvement. Operators should make better use of their study time by taking periodic practice tests to help gauge the areas they need to work on. As an added benefit, the practice tests will train them to work under the pressure of a time constraint. Because the time limit on most certification exams can create a state of panic, it is important that operators learn to perform under these stressors and to control the feelings of unease.
Countless studies have been done over the years on the ineffectiveness of “cramming,” or waiting until the last available opportunity to study for an exam. Say an operator spends the last six hours before the exam reviewing material. It is easy for them to think that they have everything committed to memory; the material is “fresh” in their mind. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. Reviewing this way gives an operator a familiarity with the material, meaning he/she will be able to recognize it when they see it on paper. Unfortunately, the ability to recognize concepts is not the same as being able to recall it. The ability to recall or reconstruct information accurately when an operator needs it requires exposure to the information over a long period of time.
The best course of action is to build a study plan that spans the course of several weeks prior to the exam. The more time an operator spends reorganizing the material so it has a structure, the more likely they are to commit the information to long term memory. Operators should aim for 45-60 minutes per day with their study material for at least six weeks prior to the exam.
How can an operator cope with anxiety on test day?
Even the most prepared test-takers can feel anxiety on test day, but there are proven methods to counteract the effects. Operators should start with getting adequate sleep the night before. Studies have shown that people perform better on memory tasks when they are well-rested. Some people will suffer from interrupted sleep when particularly worried about something. To help with this, operators can try exercising for 30 minutes before bed. Doing so will help their bodies release excess cortisol (stress hormone) in their systems caused by anxiety and will allow them to sleep better.
An operator should ensure their body is well nourished the day of the exam. This means do not skip breakfast and eat healthy foods such as grains or fruit and avoid foods with high fat content. The goal here is to eliminate as many distractors as possible so an operator can dedicate all their attention to the exam. If an operator is tired or his/her body does not have enough fuel, it can drastically hinder their performance.
Breathing – The 5-5-7 Method
During the exam, it can be extremely beneficial to stop at regular intervals (perhaps every five questions) and take deep breaths. The 5-5-7 is a breathing exercise performed by inhaling for five seconds, holding your breath for another five seconds, then exhaling for seven seconds. Dr. MacFarlane suggested that completing this exercise at regular intervals during a test session can physiologically stimulate the central nervous system, which can heighten an operator’s awareness and push anxiety from their mind. He also stressed the importance of practicing this technique for several weeks prior to the exam during their preparation, saying “The more practiced you are in this technique, the more effective it will be during exam time. Your body and mind will have a Pavlovian response to the exercise which increases its effectiveness.”
Another proven technique outlined during our discussion was progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR. This is done by deliberately applying tension (by clenching) to certain muscle groups and then releasing the induced tension. During this process, all of an operator’s attention should be focused on how their muscles feel as the tension is released. As operators learn to distinguish the feelings of a tense muscle as compared to a completely relaxed one, they are able to recognize the physical effects anxiety has on their bodies and can quickly alleviate it with this technique. Operators should be encouraged to practice PMR both when preparing for the exam and on the day of testing. They should spend 15-20 minutes at a time performing this technique on their major muscle groups (feet, legs, hands, arms, neck, and shoulders) and it will help mitigate anxiety.
The Bottom Line
While these methods have been shown to help with anxiety, they may not work for everyone. There are many more techniques that may offer relief, and operators can use these tips as a starting point to find what works best for them. Above all, operators should make sure they spend adequate time studying and reviewing the material. The better command they have of the content, the less anxious they will be about the exam, and the better they will perform.
Note: This article has been reposted with permission from the author, Tom Healy, Director of Certification Services for The Association of Boards of Certification
Original article published here: Summer 2021 Arkansas Drinking Water Update.