Exam nerves can boost grades – but only for those with good memory

Classroom12 October 2012

As 45,000 students are preparing to re-sit their GCSE exams, new research findings show that a certain amount of exam nerves can boost candidates' grades.

ESRC-funded research led by Dr Matthew Owens shows that anxiety can improve the exam result – if the candidate has a good working memory. For candidates with poor memory, however, exam anxiety can have a negative effect.

The study, carried out by Dr Owens while at the University of Southampton, included 96 school students aged between 12 and 14 from different schools. The children filled in a questionnaire indicating how anxious they were. Using computer tests, the researchers then measured anxiety and working memory, followed by tests of cognitive ability and maths performance. A good working memory is generally associated with better school performance.

"The findings suggest that there are times when a little bit of anxiety can actually motivate you to succeed," Dr Owens says in a press release from the British Psychological Society. The research findings were published today in the British Journal of Psychology.

While pupils with good working memory might benefit from exam anxiety, those with a lower memory capacity were instead found to perform more poorly.

"The research is exciting because it enhances our knowledge of when, specifically, anxiety can have a negative impact on taking tests," Dr Owens adds.

The researchers estimate that between 10 and 40 per cent of children have anxiety when taking tests. They suggest that anxious children with low working-memory capacity would benefit from interventions aimed to reduce anxiety, and should be given priority for receiving extra help in school.