Test Anxiety and Working Memory

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • You hear it all the time – a little anxiety is normal and can actually help you perform better. This, according to a recent study, seems to be true where tests are concerned – if you also have a good working memory.


    What is Test Anxiety?

    Research has shown that between 40 and 60 percent of students have test anxiety at some point and 26 percent of students indicate that they almost always feel anxiety before a test. [1] For some, test anxiety causes all the debilitating symptoms of anxiety, including physical symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches, heart palpitations, shaking and sweating. It can also cause you to blank out, even when you know the material on the test and difficulty focusing. When you have test anxiety, you can become so focused on the outcome that you feel paralyzed.

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    Test anxiety can be found anywhere from elementary school to college and beyond. It is a type of performance anxiety and can impact a student’s ability to do well in school. Behavioral strategies, such as having a routine before tests, getting a good night’s sleep, learning to effectively study and having a good breakfast all can help reduce test anxiety. But students with test anxiety will often tell you that nothing really takes it away. No matter how prepared, when a test comes along, they become extremely nervous and frequently end up forgetting everything they studied.


    New Research

    One question that has been raised is why some students seem to excel or do well on tests, receiving a boost of adrenalin, when nervous when others perform poorly on tests because of anxiety. A study published in the British Journal of Psychology (Oct. 12, 2012) may help explain why. The study looked at 96 students between the ages of 12 and 14. The participants were given evaluations for anxiety and working memory. They were then given tests for cognitive ability and in math.


    Researchers found that those students who had a poor working memory and anxiety did not perform well on the tests. Those with anxiety, but good working memory, received higher test results. Researchers believe the study results show when and why anxiety has a negative or positive impact on test performance. Dr. Matthew Owens, one of the researchers, stated, “The research is exciting because it enhances our knowledge of when, specifically, anxiety can have a negative impact on taking tests. The findings also suggest that there are times when a little bit of anxiety can actually motivate you to succeed.” [2]

    The researchers also hope that this information can help to provide a better understanding of why some children perform poorly on tests and “support offered in schools could be targeted in the first instance to those who are highest risk of poor outcomes.” [3]


    For more information:


    Dealing with Test Anxiety


    Tips to Overcome Test Anxiety




    [2] [3] “Exam Anxiety may lead to Better Grades,” 2012, Oct. 10, Staff Writer, ScienceDaily.com


    [1] “Test Taking Anxiety,” Date Unknown, Jeffrey E. Lazarus, MD. JeffLazarusMD.com


Published On: October 29, 2012