Anxiety hits exam grades, but can be countered


Pupils who worry about their exam performance may well find their fears realised, as they are significantly more likely to do badly than those who are less anxious, new research by the British Educational Research Association shows.

However, if pupils want to do well in tests, there is much they can do to manage their anxiety usefully, mainly by ensuring they focus on the task in hand rather than getting distracted.

These are the findings of two studies investigating the anxiety that pupils feel before and during exams, how they cope with it, and subsequent results. One of the studies attempted to help pupils deal with their exam-related anxiety, seemingly to good effect among the most worried.

Academics at Edge Hill University and the University of South Australia worked with researchers from AQA, England’s largest GCSE exam board, to check, first, whether there was a link between anxiety, how pupils dealt with it and their grades.

The first study involved surveying 325 pupils  -142 boys and 183 girls – from eight secondary schools in the North West of England in January and February 2012 in the run-up to their final GCSE exams.
The teenagers were asked whether they agreed with 44 statements about their possible anxieties concerning exams, how confident they felt in dealing with this stress– academic literature describes this ability as “buoyancy” – and about strategies they might use to cope with it.

Statements included generalised ones relating to tension such as “I am anxious while taking exams”, ones reflecting concern over possible outcomes such as “during exams I find myself thinking about the consequences of failing” and statements centring on fears about how the individual’s performance would be viewed by others, such as “if I fail an exam I am afraid I will be rated stupid by my friends.”

The researchers found that worrying about exams was significantly correlated with relatively bad GCSE performance, and that this relationship held even after pupils’ prior ability – as measured by previous national test results – was taken into account.

Indeed, the difference between those who say they never experience worry about failing and those who always experience such worry is 1.5 GCSE grades, say the researchers, which could be the difference between an A* and a B.

One of the researchers, Dr Dave Putwain, of Edge Hill University, said: “There is no doubt that test anxiety, or to be more precise a high degree of worry over one´s performance or the consequences of one´s performance, has a detrimental effect on GCSE performance. Our study controlled for prior attainment and also how good students were at dealing with exam pressure and found that increased worry still predicted lower achievement.”

However, the study also found that pupils who gave answers suggesting they were “buoyant” in response to exam challenges – agreeing to statements such as “I don’t let a bad mark affect my confidence” – were also significantly less anxious about their exams. This, in turn, helped “buoyant” students to do slightly better in exams than might be expected, given their abilities. An effect was also found in relation to the national test results the pupils had achieved as 11-year-olds: those who offered “buoyant” answers in the questionnaires tended to have better-than-average test results.

Meanwhile, pupils who reported worrying about exams were more likely than average to react by trying to avoid thinking about them, or getting distracted, in the run-up to a test, agreeing with statements such as “I make a conscious effort to think about something else”. This seemed not the most productive approach, having a negative association with good GCSE results.

By contrast, the research found that some pupils acknowledged anxiety but reacted to it by focusing on ensuring they prepared well, agreeing with statements such as “I concentrate all my effort on the exams”. Those who took this approach tended to do better in their GCSEs than those who did not.

The researchers’ second study investigated whether they could reduce how anxious pupils said they felt about their exams by getting them to follow an on-screen self-help programme which had been designed to do just that.

The “STEPS” (Strategies to Tackle Exam Pressure and Stress) programme included videos of former students talking about how they coped, interactive quizzes and games, study skills elements and opportunities for pupils to practise anxiety management techniques such as deep breathing and “positive visualisation”. Pupils sat the programme in six 30- to 40-minute sessions.

The team asked 267 14- to 16-year-old pupils to complete the test anxiety survey before and after taking STEPS, and compared the results to those of a control group of 1,519 pupils. The participants came from 10 schools, again in England’s North West.

While pupils categorised as having low or medium test anxiety before taking STEPS were found to have been unaffected by it, those with high test anxiety were shown to have reported their anxiety scores reduced by a “moderate to large” amount after completing the programme.

On average, those pupils who took STEPS who were highly anxious about their exams beforehand reported that this changed from a situation where they would worry about exams “all of the time” to worrying about them “often”.

The researchers believe that STEPS, which is still in the piloting phase, might have a long-term future as an alternative to other approaches to reducing pupils’ exam anxiety used in schools, which have tended to involve face-to-face sessions with educational psychiatrists or counsellors, rather than centring on a computer program.

The team’s second study concluded: “On the basis of the available evidence presented here, we are optimistic that test anxiety can be reduced using an IT-delivered, self-help programme which does not require costly, specialist input.

“Our study shows there is merit in developing alternative modes of delivery that do not rely on specialist practitioners for delivery and that can be deployed in a flexible way by schools, in or out of curriculum time, over several days or weeks, using an interactive IT mode of delivery.

“We are cautiously optimistic that our intervention may indeed offer these students ‘steps’ to identifying and managing test anxiety.”

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