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Did you know that one in three students suffers from test anxiety, also known as school performance anxiety? Anxiety is often considered the cause of poor academic results for the more anxious students, but the precise relationship between the anxiety felt during an exam and student performance is still unclear. A recently published study explores the relationship between the anxiety felt in exams and during the preparation phase, and students’ results. One of its main conclusions is that the bigger the anxiety in the studying stage, the lower the tests scores and the knowledge acquired by students.

Anxiety is often associated with poorer academic performance, as we tend to think that it interferes with the students’ capacity to transfer their knowledge into an exam. However, if that were the case, the more anxious students would get worse results in real exams than in mock exams, and it should be possible to establish a correlation between their level of anxiety and exams’ results.

To test this hypothesis, Maria Theobald, Jasmin Breitwieser and Garvin Brod carried out a study, in Germany, with 309 Medicine students who were preparing to take the final and most important exam in their course. The exam consisted of 230 multiple-choice questions, split into three five-hour parts over three consecutive days. In the 100 days before the final exam, all students answered questions from previous exams in a digital learning platform, which recorded each student’s daily performance and percentage of correct answers. In addition, 28 days before the final exam, all participants completed mock exams that were comparable to the final exam in terms of length and difficulty. To determine their level of anxiety, students rated questions such as «I feel tense and nervous»  on a scale of one to five for 40 days, as well as before the mock exams and on the day of the final exam.

The results were striking. Students’ anxiety levels on the day of the final exam did not predict their results. On the other hand, a good predictor of student’s results was the knowledge they had acquired — as assessed in the mock exams and during the studying phase. The researchers, therefore, concluded that students with a good performance in the mock exams also performed well in the final exam, regardless of their levels of anxiety. On the other hand, higher levels of anxiety during the preparation phase led to ineffective knowledge acquisition and, therefore, worse results.

Although the authors recognise that anxiety may affect students’ performance in certain academic contexts, the results of this study suggest that this negative correlation is rather complex and starts well before the moment of the exam.

Their conclusions are particularly relevant for the more anxious students, as they suggest that a different approach to the preparation phase can help them achieve better results. The authors advise students to increase their self-confidence and relativise the importance of the exam in order to reduce anxiety during exam preparations. They also pinpoint the crucial need for new research on interventions that enable a more effective knowledge acquisition for the more anxious students.


Theobald, M., Breitwieser, J., & Brod, G. (2022). Test Anxiety Does Not Predict Exam Performance When Knowledge Is Controlled For: Strong Evidence Against the Interference Hypothesis of Test Anxiety. Psychological Science, 33(12), 2073–2083.


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