Completing tasks under timed settings evokes anxiety in most people, especially children. Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time; in fact, low levels of anxiety can motivate students to study and perform well. We all fear failure. However, when anxiety interferes with test-taking and learning it can cause students to blank out or have trouble paying attention, limiting their ability to think clearly and do their best work.
Literature reviews on Test Anxiety indicate that children can experience a combination of physiological (hyperarousal) and cognitive responses during evaluative situations such as exams. Physiological hyperarousal refers to symptoms such as increased heart rate, perspiration, dizziness and nausea in addition to feeling of panic, nervousness and tension. The cognitive dimension refers to child’s appraisal of evaluative situation – not knowing how they will score on the exam and what will happen if they don’t perform well. While both elements are related, they have been found to be conceptually independent of each other.
Attentional Control Theory and Test Anxiety
The Attentional Control Theory is the most current theory of how anxiety impacts a child’s ability to maintain concentration, which in turn affects test performance. The Attentional Control Theory is the most current theory of how anxiety impacts a child’s ability to maintain concentration, which in turn affects test performance.
According to this theory, anxiety affects the child’s performance via its adverse effects on “attentional control”- child’s capacity to choose what they pay attention to and what they ignore i.e. ability to concentrate. In summary, the Theory provides a detailed account of how anxiety affects Working MemoryWorking Memory in a Nut ShellThe “boss” of the working memory is called Central Executive. It allocates data to other systems based on the nature of the data. Information is then either stored in the Visio-Spatial Sketch Pad subsystem or Phonological Loop. The Visuo-Spatial Sketch Pad stores and processes information in a visual or spatial form. The phonological loop is the part of working memory that deals with spoken and written material. It can be used to remember a phone number.
Anxiety is believed to affect both Visio Spatial Sketch Pad and Phonological Loop, the ability to ignore irrelevant information in a task, and ability to shift attention between tasks. High levels of Test Anxiety have been shown to interfere with the Phonological Loop, affecting the processing of verbal information, thus potentially reducing the ability to encode exam-related material and leading to surface level learning.
Working Memory and Anxiety
Larger working memory is related to improved reading comprehension performance. Given that reading comprehension is a fundamental component to performance in most academic domains. Reduced reading comprehension reduces answer accuracy and understanding. Unintentional thoughts reflect a lapse in attention control and diversion from on-task thoughts. These interfering thoughts subsequently impact task performance negatively.
Anxiety is thought to promote the bottom-up system over the top-down process resulting in an attentional bias and inability to shift attention. Researchers have described two different aspects of how our minds come to attend to items present in the environment.
Bottom-up processing, aka also stimulus-driven attention, is when we attend to stimulus around us. For example, sudden loud noise, smells or motion. We cannot help but turn our attention to these things and this is considered to be “pre-conscious”. The second aspect is called top-down processing, where the person consciously attends to the material before them. This is a conscious process and is believed to play an integral functioning of working memory.
The impact of anxiety on working memory becomes relevant when considering literature review that implicates working memory in a range of learning outcomes.
“Retrieval Failure Test Anxiety” and Attentional Control Theory
Retrieval Failure Test Anxiety refers to “anxiety blockage” whereby students who have studied well and assimilated test-related information prior to exam, experience an impaired ability to retrieve information during an exam (Zeidner, 1998). This is due to interfering worry thoughts. Though the theory does not take into account the influence of anxiety on memory which is separate to working memory.
Anxiety overwhelms working memory and reduces the inhibitory control on incorrect, task-irrelevant responses thus promoting bottom-up attentional processes that are sensitive to worry thoughts. As attention is directed towards these worry thoughts, this affects processing efficiency by using attentional resources. This promotes an effortful response to minimise the impact of anxiety on attention through compensatory measures such as applying greater effort. However, when compensatory measures are not sufficient enough to offset this deficit, then on-task performance suffers, and then exam performance suffers.
Study Skills and Test Anxiety
It has been found that children with high anxiety levels tend to have ineffectual methods of study, when compared to children who score low on anxiety levels. However, poor study skill methods alone do not simply explain why some individuals with Test Anxiety perform poorly on examinations. Some children with Test Anxiety are able to use other compensatory methods to improve their study skills – such as studying for longer – use more effective study strategies or they may have a larger working memory capacity to start of with.
- Training working memory: There are several computer based programs that focus on improving working memory. Through repetition they tend to improve a child’s reading comprehension and everyday attention. However, there have been mixed results in regards to such interventions.
- Study Skills Training: learning strategies that impose the least burden on working memory would be thought to increase the ability of people with high in Test Anxiety to encode exam-related material. Anxious children generally perform poorly on rule-based learning tasks than family resemblance learning. Rule-based learning involves making connections between two items based on specific rules and require more working memory capacity. Family resemblance based learning is not based on the application and testing of rules but rather looking for resemblances between two facing questions. For example, when faced with a mathematical equation in an exam it is easier to remember a similar problem that you have practiced with at home and then apply the same rules, rather than trying to figure out what the problem is not asking.
- Cognitive Therapy. In the past, we have encouraged children to challenge some of their maladaptive thinking styles when it comes to their worries – eg self-talk such “what makes you think you will fail, you didn’t fail last time, think of something happy etc. These strategies have been found to be ineffectual and even detrimental when applied to anxiety, especially strategies such as thought suppression. Cognitive therapies involve engaging in these disruptive thoughts which in itself may serve to use additional working memory resources and further reduce processing efficiency.
- Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is a type of verbal therapy based on mindfulness techniques, which in contrast to CBT aims to help the child accept troubling feelings and thoughts rather than manage or resolve them. Studies on the use of Mindfulness in the classroom are still limited, but those that compare the use of CBT vs ACT based therapy have found ACT to be significantly more effective in improving exam performance than CBT, with the CBT participants showing a decline in performance. These studies, however, are limited by the small sample size employed, making outcomes tentative.