Exam anxiety can lead to better grades - as long as you have a good memory

Taking academic tests can be a stressful time for some young people and especially for those with a history of elevated anxiety. However a study published today in the British Journal of Psychology shows that anxiety only has a negative effect on test results if memory is also poor. Furthermore if memory is good, increased anxiety is associated with attaining better marks.

In this study 96 school students aged between 12 and 14, from several schools, completed measures of anxiety and working memory, using computer tests. Good working memory predicts educational attainment. The students were then tested for cognitive ability and maths performance.

It was found that when working memory was poor, increased anxiety was associated with low test scores. When working memory was good, anxiety was associated with higher test results.  

Dr Matthew Owens, a researcher at the University of Cambridge (who carried out the study while at the University of Southampton) said: “The research is exciting because it enhances our knowledge of when, specifically, anxiety can have a negative impact on taking tests. The findings also suggest that there are times when a little bit of anxiety can actually motivate you to succeed.” 

The researchers hope that their project will lead to more understanding of the impact of elevated anxiety on academic testing in young people. Given that anywhere between 10 per cent and 40 per cent* of children are affected by anxiety around taking tests, support offered in schools could be targeted in the first instance to those who are at highest risking of poor outcomes. 

The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Action Medical Research.