Exams Increase Anxiety and Affect Performance

Do Exams Increase Anxiety and Affect Student Performance?

A recent study by Silah et al from the University of California has looked into the relationship between test anxiety and metacognition. The researchers’ main aim was to assess “how the quantity and relative weight of assessments contribute to the effects of test anxiety on performance and metacognitive accuracy.”

In other words, do tests with high and low stakes affect student performance when it comes to increasing or reducing anxiety and the ability to recall information?

A closer look at the methodology

The study analysed a small “seminar-style class on human memory (study 1) and a larger lecture-style class on cognitive psychology (study 2)”.

Participants in the study were asked to take “six quizzes that were each worth 10% of their final grade (study 1), while in a larger, lecture-style class in cognitive psychology, students took two exams, each worth 40% of their grade (study 2).”

In both of these classes, the participants “completed a questionnaire both before and after each assessment within the span of the academic quarter (11 weeks: 10 instructional weeks + 1 final exam week).”

Researchers believed they would witness the following results:

  • Student scores and their metacognitive accuracy would significantly increase
  • Anxiety would significantly decrease from pre- to post-assessment for students in both classes
  • Students who reported high ratings of trait anxiety would also report significantly higher ratings of anxiety and have significantly lower scores on the assessments
  • Metacognition would significantly interact with test anxiety

The results – high-stakes testing is not the fairest way to assess students

In both studies, the researchers found that:

  • Anxiety decreased from before to after assessments
  • Overall score calibration increased throughout the academic quarter
  • Higher post-exam state anxiety was associated with worse assessment performance
  • Although students were less anxious on completion, they did not recognise that their performance increased
  • Students were more anxious after the exam when they knew they had performed poorly

The study concludes:

“Less-frequent, higher-stakes assessments may trigger students’ baseline levels of anxiety”. Students will “feel more pressure to perform better on these exams compared to testing environments with more-frequent, lower-stakes quizzes, as each individual assessment would not necessarily have as substantial of an impact on a student’s overall course grade comparatively.

So, it comes as no surprise that when politicians argue that end of year exams are the ‘fairest way to assess students‘, an indisputable study says otherwise. Further research suggests “students are overwhelmed with stress, anxiety, and worry due to testing in high-stakes context.”

However, the researchers did point out that “we did not consider how the differences in low-stakes quizzes may prompt students to adjust their study practices” and other factors that are at play. For example, collecting “a variety of demographic factors, along with reports and measures of students’ efforts and strategies to prepare for quizzes and exam.”

It’s safe to say that assessment is a good thing. But at what cost? According to this research, it could be adversely affecting the mental health of young people.

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