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Student test anxiety relieved by new research

Letting kids look at exams before they begin can help reduce anxiety and improve performance.

Student sitting exam

While NAPLAN marks slip across the country, new research suggests letting kids look at exams before they begin can help reduce anxiety and improve performance.

Child development researcher and PhD student Myrto Mavilidi, from the Early Start Research Institute at UOW, said that test anxiety is a major threat to student performance that can lead them to ‘choking under pressure’.

“The stress related to pressure-filled exam situations has physiological effects, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, emotional effects, such as worries about the situation and its consequences, and cognitive effects, such as working memory load,” Ms Mavilidi said.

“Our research has found that even letting students skim their exams for one minute before they begin can help to reduce anxiety.”

Researchers from UOW and Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands tested the math skills of 117 sixth grade students across primary schools in Athens and found that both low-anxiety and high-anxiety students were less stressed and achieved better results if they were allowed to scan the test beforehand.

The study, recently published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, also found that students with higher anxiety levels needed significantly more response time and greater effort because their working memories were consumed by negative thoughts, and so performed worse on their exams.

“We have a very limited working memory capacity so if children are anxious they devote more of their working memory to their anxieties instead of their working potential,” Ms Mavilidi said.

Rather than focusing on the math problems, which they were often able to answer outside of exam conditions, Ms Mavilidi said students were instead occupied with thoughts of failure or making mistakes.

“At that age children don’t really know what works best for them. But if teachers can suggest some techniques for them, then that can be very helpful.”

Ms Mavilidi said parents and teachers could help better prepare children for exams not only by focusing on the materials that have to be learned, but also on testing. She said a technique called formative testing, whereby learning is constantly monitored and ongoing constructive feedback provided, is a way for parents and teachers to help students.

“Recent research shows that formative testing is a very effective learning method, which leads to better performance on exams than simply restudying the learning materials.

“For example, students could keep a ‘learning log’ of the material they are learning to identify what they are on top of and what they are struggling with. They could also create a visual representation to explain tough concepts or have an open-ended discussion about a topic to see how much they know about a specific area.”

“Frequent formative testing cannot only lead to better learning, but also to less anxiety on high-stakes exams.”

Ms Mavilidi said other techniques to help students get through exams include: sequencing test problems from simple to complex, making the test situation similar to the learning situation, minimising distraction and having a good sleep between the learning and testing situation.

Ms Mavilidi said Australian policy makers should reconsider how we are schooling our kids, with research from another recent study showing seven out of 10 teachers did not see that NAPLAN was improving literacy and numeracy. 

“Our research is something that could apply to any educational institute and something educational policy officers need to consider,” she said.

Media contact: Myrto Mavilidi is available for interview. Please contact Elise Pitt, Media & PR Officer, +61 2 4221 3079, +61 422 959 953,

About Early StartFrom the simple premise, “every child deserves the best possible start to life” we are developing the most sophisticated teaching, research and community engagement initiative in higher education. Early Start is a $44million transformational project that aims to create and enrich life opportunities for young Australians from birth – 12 years. It consists of building a world-class Children’s Discovery Centre (Australia’s only example of a USA-styled ‘children’s museum’ promoting learning through play and the importance of life-long learning); an international hub for multi-disciplinary research tackling issues as varied as early cognitive development, healthy lifestyles and inspiring creativity in our young; cutting-edge early childhood courses; and a network of preschools across New South Wales which act as test beds for putting pioneering research into practise.