For many students and young people, the experience of sitting exams can be stressful.

But the impact of stress and anxiety on exam performance is not clear.

New research published recently in Psychological Science, by Maria Theobald at the Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education and her colleagues, is its not the pressure of the exam hall causing the problem.

The researchers hoped to test what impact stress and anxiety in the exam hall had on performance. It could be that stress spurs students to fire on all cylinders and perform well in an important exam. On the other hand, exam hall stress could lead to students struggling to remember important information and properly show what they know and can do. Skill-deficit models assume that test-anxious students show deficits not only in retrieving information but also in organizing, encoding, and storing information. Several previous studies have also found that test-anxious students report poor study skills, which may contribute to ineffective knowledge acquisition.

Through analysis of over 300 German medical students preparing for high-stakes exams, the researchers examined whether test anxiety predicted performance in a high-stakes exam. Participants used a digital learning platform to prepare for a high-stakes exam by answering old multiple-choice exam questions. Students participated in a pretest, a daily survey period over the course of 40 days, and a posttest – including measuring their levels of anxiety. The research covered the lead up to the students’ final state exam, the most important exam for medical students in Germany.

Students’ knowledge was tested throughout their exam-preparation and their average performance in mock exams. The results showed that test anxiety did not predict exam performance over and above students’ knowledge levels. What the researchers found was that lower knowledge levels predicted higher subsequent anxiety, meaning prior knowledge and preparation were the key factors.

These findings are incompatible with the hypothesis that test anxiety interferes with the retrieval of previously learned knowledge during the exam.

Results from the study have important implications for interventions to help test-anxious students. The researchers found test-anxious students’ knowledge deficits appeared before the actual exam and likely developed over time, so by the time they reach the exam hall it is very difficult to intervene. Earlier interventions with study-strategy training sessions could help to offset knowledge deficits, which were found to be the major predictors of both performance and anxiety.

This research presents useful insights for those concerned with assessment. While exams and assessments can be stressful experiences for young people, the stress of actually sitting of an exam is not necessarily linked to a candidate’s performance. Exams measure what a person knows and can do, meaning attempts to improve students’ experiences of exams need to consider the wider support and guidance young people have available beforehand, as well as ensuring the exams are inclusive.