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Education, Stress and anxiety, Teaching and learning

Test anxiety makes it harder to absorb information while preparing for an exam

Study suggests that test anxiety doesn't simply impair performance during an exam, but rather makes it harder to acquire knowledge in the first place.

11 November 2022

By Emma Young

Many students find taking exams stressful. "They worry about whether they will be able to recall their knowledge; their hearts beat faster; they sweat and they want to escape the exam room," write Maria Theobald at the Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education, Germany and colleagues in their new paper in Psychological Science. These are all symptoms of what's known as 'test anxiety'. Test anxiety is thought to interfere with a person's ability to retrieve knowledge from their memory during a test, and has been widely linked to poorer exam performance.

But Theobald and her colleagues wondered whether instead test anxiety might be impairing people's preparation for an exam, rather than affecting performance during the exam itself. To explore this, they turned to data on 309 medical students in Germany who had used a digital learning platform to prepare for their crucial final university exam. The team was able to track each student's level of knowledge, starting 100 days before the exam itself. This was revealed in their performance on practice questions, as well as in mock exams that took place shortly before the real thing. The students also all completed a measure of their 'trait' (background) levels of test anxiety. And, throughout a 40-day period, they repeatedly reported on their levels of 'state' anxiety regarding their exam preparation.

The researchers found that greater trait test anxiety was indeed linked to a poorer performance in the final exam. However, it was also linked to poorer performance on the practice questions, and a lower percentage in the mock exam. So, students with the most test anxiety went into the final exam with less knowledge. In fact, when the researchers took into account performance on the mock exam or the pre-exam practice questions, test anxiety no longer predicted their final exam scores.

The researchers further explored why people with test anxiety might have poorer knowledge. They first looked at each student's level of trait test anxiety and their performance on practice questions across the course of the pre-exam period. They found that students with higher trait anxiety showed a smaller increase in knowledge over time. This suggests that greater trait test anxiety makes it harder to acquire knowledge.

Finally, the team found evidence that awareness of gaps in one's own knowledge may trigger more anxiety. During the preparation period, higher state anxiety in the morning was not linked to poorer scores on practice questions that day. However, fewer correct answers on one day was linked to greater test-related anxiety the next morning.

Earlier work has suggested that anxiety during an exam can particularly impair the performance of students with relatively low vs high working memory capacities (worries are thought to take up some working memory, leaving less for the task at hand). The participants in this study were high-performing medical students with presumably capacious working memories. Perhaps this buffered them against any impacts of worries during the exam on performance.

It is possible that anxiety during an exam may interfere with performance in some academic scenarios, but "our work suggests that this interference is not as pervasive as previously believed," the team writes. Overall, "the results of the present study suggest that the reasons for the negative association between anxiety and test performance are complex and begin well before the final test situation."

And this has important implications for test-anxious students, they note. There is research suggesting that training sessions designed to improve study strategies can help students who are anxious about an exam. But, as this work found that test anxiety begins to exert its effects early on in exam preparation, these interventions would need to come early, too. (In fact, the new findings might explain why some interventions designed to relieve test anxiety right before an important exam, such as getting students to write about their worries, have not improved exam performance.)

"Future research should focus on the development of interventions that facilitate effective knowledge acquisition during exam preparation, or even earlier, to improve the educational prospects of highly test-anxious students," the team concludes.