Many of us have experienced situations where we feel highly anxious. This can include physiological effects of sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat, which are adaptive responses to danger, and cognitive processes such as feeling worried and struggling to think clearly (Lowe and Lee, 2007; Stirling & Hellewell, 1999, p.80).
However, although useful when fighting an evolutionary threat, this is potentially problematic in the modern world where high-stress situations require quick thinking and concentration.
Exam anxiety is a relatively new phenomenon and is something affecting an increasing number of adolescents, especially following the GCSE reforms that place greater value and therefore pressure on terminal examinations (Putwain, 2008). This has a particularly negative impact on students who already have anxiety (von der Embse et al., 2012). This post will help you understand what exam anxiety is, how it has been studied, and how it can be managed.
Anxiety affects around 7% of children aged 5-17 in the UK (NHS, 2018, p.7), and those with anxiety are 1.4 times more likely to drop out of high school (Moran, 2016, p.4). For teenagers who are already dealing with anxiety, the process of examinations exacerbates this (Putwain, 2008).
Although people are often affected differently, some of the most common symptoms of anxiety include both behavioural and cognitive elements, for example, difficulty concentrating, feelings of dread, and restlessness (Stirling & Hellewell, 1999, p.80). One of the reasons people with anxiety can struggle to concentrate has been explained through theories of attention, as persistent, peripheral feelings of anxiety have been evidenced to impair cognitive performance (Fox et al., 2018, page 210).
We have a limited ability to pay attention, remember relevant stimuli and complete certain tasks simultaneously, which are all controlled by our working memory capacity (WMC) (Eysenck & Keane, 2020, p.823). Some individuals are less able to control their attention than others, and Moran (2016) explains that WMC can be further limited by anxiety. This is because states of stress reduce the short-term retention of information as anxiety competes with the necessary, and limited, cognitive resources to remain on task. Therefore, this demonstrates how anxiety can affect the ability to concentrate, especially on complex tasks.
How does this impact exam performance?
Exam anxiety is a specific type of anxiety that can affect anyone as it is event-specific (although it is understandably more common in those with anxiety) and involves an emotional response of fear, uneasiness, and apprehension to being critically examined (Donaldson et al., 2002, p.261). It has been estimated to affect 10-40% of all students to varying degrees (Gregor, 2005). The potential impact of this is that pupils feel disengaged with their work as a form of self-preservation, as a key component of anxiety is avoidance of fearful situations. Furthermore, people with anxiety often worry about the future due to fear of damaging one’s self-perception, which is particularly relevant to exams as performance in tests is, unfortunately, the way many young people are taught will determine their value as individuals and will affect their future immensely. Consequently, evidence suggests that pupils with high exam anxiety achieve a grade lower at GCSE compared to if their anxiety had been low (Putwain, 2008).
Lowe & Lee (2007) explain why exam anxiety occurs by considering the combination of different factors. Not only does the stress of taking exams divide attentional resources, but it can also result in the activation of the sympathetic nervous system so that physical symptoms of arousal such as sweating, increased heart rate, and muscle tension disrupt the recall of information. Furthermore, a process called social derogation can occur in which pupils experience exam anxiety due to fear of the reactions of others were they to fail. Overall, clearly, these responses can be detrimental to exam performance.
However, it is also noteworthy that some degree of exam anxiety can be beneficial; Albert & Haber (1960) theorised that a Yerkes-Dodson effect is seen in anxiety (see image below) in that a certain level can enhance executive functioning, meaning it is easier to concentrate and is associated with increased academic performance. Therefore, it may be beneficial for students to learn how to use their anxiety to their benefit rather than disadvantage.
What can be done to help manage exam anxiety?
Numerous studies have been conducted on interventions to help students manage their exam anxiety. Egbochuku & Obodo (2005) found that through using systematic desensitisation, a process of getting participants to relax when faced with increasingly stressful stimuli, pupils could be counter-conditioned to no longer associate tests with fear. This is a promising example of an intervention that could be used with pupils with the highest levels of anxiety.
Furthermore, Gregor (2005) investigated techniques in reducing anxiety and increasing exam performance within a school setting. They compared different approaches: relaxation techniques (breathing exercises) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which aims to correct faulty views, for example learning how the mind can influence emotions such as anxiety and replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones. These techniques were delivered as part of PSHE lessons in school. Although the findings were somewhat mixed, overall, they concluded that combining them was the most effective approach and resulted in reduced ratings of anxiety as well as improved exam performance. This provides promising evidence for preventative measures schools can utilise and demonstrates the scope for future research in this area.
Based on a systematic review of test anxiety interventions, von der Embse et al. (2012) found the most effective treatment to be delivering CBT to classes of students, especially those who have not responded to previous interventions, and relaxation techniques to be appropriate for pupils with the highest levels of test anxiety. However, the researchers emphasised that these studies have not been replicated and some interventions even increased the anxiety ratings of pupils, potentially as they were less beneficial to pupils with low anxiety (von der Embse et al., 2012). Therefore, the results should be used with caution.
Overall, it is imperative that future research explores the diverse and complex nature of anxiety in young people to better preventative interventions.
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von der Embse, N., Barterian, J., & Segool, N. (2012). Test Anxiety Interventions for Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review of Treatment Studies from 2000-2010. Psychology In The Schools, 50(1), 57-71. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.21660
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