The sad thing about children’s exam nerves is that their fears often become self-fulfilling. Too much anxiety and they can end up under-performing relative to their abilities.
A team of psychologists led by Fred Paas and colleagues has taken a cognitive psychology approach to this situation. Children have a certain amount of “working memory” capacity, they say, and it’s either used up by the task at hand, or by external pressures, such as intrusive, worrying thoughts.
Paas and his team have explored the benefits of a simple strategy that’s designed to help children focus more on the school test, and less on worrying.
Over 100 children (aged 11-12) at three Greek primary schools sat a maths test. Stress was ratcheted up with a timer (three minutes per question) and a prize for the best performer in each class. Crucially, the researchers gave half the students one minute at the test start to skim through all 10 of the maths problems – this was the simple intervention. The researchers said this should reduce anxiety and boost confidence by “activating the relevant schemas for solving the test problems”. The remaining students acted as controls and had an extra minute to answer the first problem.
The good news is that the children who took a minute to skim through the questions performed better on average than the control students, and this was true regardless of their tendency to experience test-related anxiety. Because the students’ self-reported levels of mental exertion didn’t vary across the control and intervention conditions, the researchers said this shows the skimming ahead strategy boosted performance by aiding the children’s efficiency, helping them focus more on the task, and less on worry.
The problem with this interpretation is that the intervention helped all children, not just the anxious, and what’s more, the children’s self-reported anxiety levels were no different in the intervention condition versus the control condition. From a practical perspective, if our aim is to help anxious children overcome their disadvantage relative to the non-anxious, this intervention won’t help. So, the skimming ahead strategy certainly seems like a simple method for boosting children’s test performance, but it’s not clear that this is specifically a way to reduce test anxiety.
The researchers disagree. They concluded: “Although further studies need to be conducted to show whether the strategy generalises to other topics, such as language, or that a longer period to look ahead will have a greater impact on anxiety and performance, the strategy seems very promising in enabling students to perform up to their maximum potential.”
Mavilidi, M., Hoogerheide, V., & Paas, F. (2014). A Quick and Easy Strategy to Reduce Test Anxiety and Enhance Test Performance Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28 (5), 720-726 DOI: 10.1002/acp.3058