Pupils who worry about their exam performance are more likely to do badly than those who are less anxious, according to new research by Edge Hill University.

However, if young people want to do well in tests, they can manage their anxiety by ensuring they focus on the task in hand rather than getting distracted.

These are the findings of the latest studies investigating how pupils feel before and during exams, how they cope with stress, and subsequent results, which will be unveiled at the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference today (Thursday).

Academics at Edge Hill University and the University of South Australia have being working with researchers from the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, England’s largest GCSE exam board, to investigate links between anxiety and exam grades.

Researcher Dr Dave Putwain, Reader in Education at Edge Hill University, said: “There is no doubt that a high degree of worry over one’s performance, or the consequences of one´s performance, has a detrimental effect on GCSE results. Our study, which was controlled for prior attainment and also how good students were at dealing with exam pressure, found that increased worry still predicted lower achievement.”

The first study involved surveying 325 pupils from eight secondary schools in the North-West in the run-up to their final GCSE exams.  The teenagers were asked whether they agreed with 44 statements about their possible anxieties concerning exams, how confident they felt in dealing with this stress and about strategies they might use to cope with it. Their comments included feeling nervous, the consequences of ‘failing’ and how they would be viewed by others if they performed badly.

“Our research found that worrying about exams significantly correlated with relatively bad GCSE performance,” said Dr Putwain. “However, pupils who acknowledged anxiety but reacted to it by ensuring they prepared well, tended to do better than those who did not.”

They conducted a second study to investigate ways to reduce anxiety by getting them to follow an on-screen self-help programme.

STEPS (Strategies to Tackle Exam Pressure and Stress) included videos of former students talking about how they coped, interactive quizzes and games, study skills elements and opportunities for pupils to practice anxiety management techniques, such as deep breathing and positive visualisation.

On average, those pupils who took STEPS who were anxious about their exams beforehand reported that this was reduced after taking part in the programme.

Dr Putwain said: “Although STEPS is still in the piloting phase, we believe it might have a long-term future as an alternative to other approaches in reducing pupils’ exam anxiety, which have tended to involve face-to-face sessions with educational psychiatrists or counsellors, We are cautiously optimistic that our intervention may indeed offer these students ways of identifying and managing test anxiety.”

A symposium, Reducing debilitating exam anxiety in GCSE students, is being chaired by Dr Putwain at BERA’s annual conference on 5th September.