Under lots of exam pressure, better students take the same bad shortcuts as poorer students, and their anxiety can waste working memory.
Have you ever had a nightmare about taking a math test? Math anxiety is so common that researchers use it to study how stress affects performance. At last week’s AAAS meeting in San Francisco, a panel discussed math anxiety. One researcher said her studies showed that the best students were the ones most likely to choke under a high-pressure test situation. That’s because normally they use their higher memory capacity to methodically work through a problem. But when the pressure’s on, the good students resort to the same ineffective shortcuts the poor students use all the time. Another researchers shed some light on this with his study showing that anxiety actually occupies working memory, wasting it instead of devoting it to the task at hand. And just being able to suppress these emotions doesn’t seem to help. In fact, people with higher intelligence actually consumed more resources to keep their anxiety in check. They say their findings suggest that high-pressure tests might not be measuring what they’re meant to, and schools might want to try de-emphasizing their importance.