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Exam-day anxiety not enough alone to ruin results

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-11-23 10:10

Have you ever been so nervous about an exam you worried your anxiety would affect your performance?

A recent psychological study has shown anxiety about exams may not detrimentally affect grades. Indeed, feeling anxious is a normal human trait and not something to be worried about, if it helps you take such challenges seriously.

Research does, however, indicate that anxiety during revision time leading up to an exam can have a negative influence on how you do, due to the knock-on effect it has on the quality of your study sessions.

Published recently in the journal Psychological Science, the study investigated whether the pressure of revision could potentially impair a student's ability to transfer information from the brain to the paper on the big day. Surprisingly, this was found not to be the case. Some 309 German medical students taking final summative exams were recruited for the study. The exam, consisting of 230 questions split into three five-hour sessions over several days, is very important to the students' career prospects.

The test is not an undertaking for the lighthearted, and the volunteers were asked to log their anxiety levels every day for 40 days leading up to both the real thing and a mock examination.

The results took the researchers by surprise.

Anxiety on the day of the exam did not correlate with performance. However, it did predict the level of knowledge a student displayed in the mock exam and earlier learning and revision-based activities.

Those who performed well in them also did well in the real thing, despite whatever emotions were felt on the actual day of reckoning. High anxiety levels that proliferated throughout the weeks leading up to the exam were linked to lower levels of knowledge gained during revision periods, leaving the student with less ability on the day.

Researchers suggest that by changing an anxious student's approach to revision results could be improved.

Test anxiety is worse when students already have low perceived expectations of success, combined with an increased perception of the importance of the exam. Belief in a student's own abilities can be increased by students reminding themselves that they have prepared adequately and that they do indeed possess knowledge of the subject.

Stress can be the biggest killer of performance during revision periods, and it is important that students recognize telltale signs that their body is stressed.

Students who find it difficult to remain focused on a task and whose thoughts seem to race uncontrollably, simply disengage and walk away.

Ways to cope include making a snack or a drink or going for a walk because the brain requires breaks from tasks to compose its thoughts from a hard day's learning. By forcing the mind and body to sit through more study when adequate breaks have not been taken simply derails the revision process and leads to poor-quality learning.

Breathing, meditation, and mindfulness exercises — all available online — can also help destress students and allow them to build capacity for learning once again.

Physical athletes have long understood the benefits of rest in allowing the body's muscles to recover for the next workout, however the mental athletes of today in our schools and universities must also be aware that the same principal affects their cerebral state too.

Barry He is a London-based columnist for China Daily.

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