The sad thing about children’s exam nerves is that their fears often become self-fulfilling. Too much anxiety and they can end up under-performing relative to their abilities.

A team of psychologists led by Fred Paas and colleagues has taken a cognitive psychology approach to this situation. Children have a certain amount of “working memory” capacity, they say, and it’s either used up by the task at hand, or by external pressures, such as intrusive, worrying thoughts. Paas and his team have explored the benefits of a simple strategy that’s designed to help children focus more on the school test, and less on worrying.

Over 100 children (aged 11-12) at three Greek primary schools sat a maths test. Stress was ratcheted up with a timer (three minutes per question) and a prize for the best performer in each class. Crucially, the researchers gave half the students one minute at the test start to skim through all 10 of the maths problems – this was the simple intervention. The researchers said this should reduce anxiety and boost confidence by “activating the relevant schemas for solving the test problems”. The remaining students acted as controls and had an extra minute to answer the first problem.

The good news is that the children who took a minute to skim through the questions performed better on average than the control students, and this was true regardless of their tendency to experience test-related anxiety. Because the students’ self-reported levels of mental exertion didn’t vary across the control and intervention conditions, the researchers said this shows…

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