Law students pore over mammoth texts on torts and contracts for three years and then clutch when it's time to take the bar exam.
High-school scholars balnk out when they open up their college entrance examinations.
Motorists seeking a driver's license freeze on the written exam.
Their problem isn't that they don't know the answers. They've probably studied as hard as anyone. What they are experiencing is "test anxiety," a mental state in which everything they've learned is erased from their minds.
It can happen, say psycholgists and educators who offer help in overcoming the condition, as they walk into the examination room, or when they sit down, pick up a pencil or open the test.
"Very often they can know the material very well," says educational psychologist Lu Parbery, "but minds go blank. They get foggy and fuzzy and they don't know what to do."
"Blankouts," says Matthew Kamins, director of Endeavor, a private educational diagnostic center in Montogmery County, "are fairly prevalent." Those who experience it, he says, have learned to couple fear with the test they are facing. "They get anxious. They think, 'I'm not going to do well on this test.' And lo and behold, they don't."
The problem, while apparently not all that difficult to overcome, can have a devastating efect on a person's educational or business success.
One test-anxious pre-med student, says Bethesda psychologist Irene S. Vogel, took a qualifying exanm three times -- and "failed it three times. She had become so upset she blanked out." Before the fourth try, the student sought anxiety-reduction counseling from Vogel, "and she passed this time with flting colors."
Other clients, she says, try to put off, or avoid, impending tests. They show up telling her, "I just don't want to go through two week of being miserable."
Psychologist Parbery, who is a counselor at Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus, sayd she tends to see test anxiety "more often in tense, highstrung people who haven't learned to relax -- perfectionists who put high demands on themselves."
It's usually related, she adds, to other "life issues," such as "parental expectations" and "how they see themselves -- their picture of themselves in their heads." These people, says Parbery, "are afraid of failure. They clutch up with any kind of test that's going to judge their performance."
Vogel believes test-takers go blank because they are "concentrating more on their internal state than on the external situation. They know they know the material, but they're so focused on what's happening internally" they become paralyzed. They tell themselves: "M'god, I'll fail. I won't get to go to grad school." That, she says, is putting "to much emphasis on the possible consequences."
Vogel and others use a combination of deep-relaxation techinques and behavior modification to help conquer test anxiety, as well as such related problems as fear of public speaking. Hypnosis and forms of self-hypnosis are also used.
For the person who sees potential disaster in flunking, Vogel advises: "Anything you can say that reduces the consequences or makes it less significant" is helpful. After all, "Your like is not going to come to an end."
Adds Parbery: "When you give permission to people that they can fail, they'll do a whole lot better."
Vogel offers monthly anxiety-reduction workshops called PASS -- Psychological Approaches to Success Skills. For two three-hour sessions held a week apart, she charges $75. They developed, she says, "When I was getting a lot of calls from people who had anxieties or difficulty in concentration. But a lot of them didn't need therapy. They needed education in certain skills."
The workshops also are a result, she says, "of my impatience as a therapist. I don't like to take a year if it can only take a week or six months."
Her clients, she says, learn to understand "that what creates anxiety in a situation is not the situation itself, but what they believe about that situation. So they should ask themselves what kinds of internal messages are they giving themselves." They may be "leaving word pictures in their heads that are self-defeating."
"Ask," Vogel advises, "what would be a more appropriate belief? How would I like to change those pictures and those words?"
A client whose anxiety problem was fear of speaking in public painted negative mental pictures of herself in business meetings. "She saw herself making mistakes. People were whispering and laughing at her." In time, "she learned how to change her pictures. And she no longer feels fear when she has to make a presentation."
Our bodies, Vogel says, react pretty much the same way to anticipation and anxiety: the "rapid heartbeat, the butterflies." So long as the feeling are the same, the idea is to opt for positive rather than the negative.
Endeavor's Kamins says one method of helping the test-anxious to relax is to "rehearse with them what it's going to be like in the classroom. We tell them to go to the place where the test is being held to become familiar with it -- identify a seat." At test time, "bring enough pencils. Bring your favorite bubble gum."
Like to Vogel, he also urges them "to make positive self-statements," such as "I've done it before." He also uses "desensitization" techniques.
"When people learn to fear something, they get muscle tension. We have people imagine themselves in an anxiety-producing situation. Then they're told to relax. After several sessions of going back and forth, instead of coupling stress and muscle tension, they couple it with relaxation."
But this doesn't mean your goal should be the elimination of all tension and anxiety from the testing experience. They're necessary, says Parbery, to work yourself up to a proper "pitch" to do your best.
"To do well on any exam, you have to handle tension and anxiety." You have to be in control so you don't overdo it," and you have to make sure your timing is right so what you are learning "is fresh in your mind for exam time." Some students, she says, have never learned to make the proper balance.
Test anxiety, of course, is not the only reason people fail exams. "Some," says Kamins, "don't know how to organize" their answers. Some are poor at timing themselves. Others "don't know how to read very well."
And, adds Vogel, "There's no substitute for learning the material."