When a Little Anxiety Actually Makes You Perform Better

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For students with a good memory, feeling anxious before taking an exam might actually lead to a higher test score, researchers have found. HealthDay News reports:

“In the new study, researchers in England used computer tests to assess levels of anxiety and working memory in 96 students, aged 12 to 14. Good working memory is generally associated with better school performance. The students were then tested on their general thinking and math skills.

The researchers found that in students with a good working memory, anxiety was associated with higher test scores. In students with a poor working memory, anxiety led to lower test results, according to the report published Oct. 12 in the British Journal of Psychology.

‘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,’ said study author Matthew Owens, a researcher at the University of Cambridge.

The findings could improve understanding of the impact that anxiety has on students, the researchers said. They estimated that between 10 percent and 40 percent of children have anxiety when taking tests, and suggested that those who are more likely to do poorly on tests could be given priority for receiving extra help in school.” (Read more here.)

It’s important to understand just how anxiety affects performance: attending to our worries uses up space in working memory, which we need to apply to answering the questions on the test.

Perhaps those lucky students with expansive working memories have enough mental capacity to feel nervous and still recruit the resources they need to do well on the test—and, as this study suggests, even get a bit of a motivational or attentional boost from the urgency of the test-taking situation.

How about you—have you ever felt that an edge of anxiety was actually helpful while taking a test?

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