Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Anxiety Impacts Test Scores

One of the (many) news articles that came out of this years' AAAS meeting has to do with anxiety's impact on test performance.

Specifically, a panel titled "Interplay of Emotion and Cognition: Implications for Learning and High-Stakes Testing" included a presentation by Dr. Mark Ashcraft on "How Math Anxiety Compromises Performance: The Role of Working Memory."

Dr. Ashcraft (note the article has this misspelled "Ashcroft") noted that math anxiety takes up working memory that is particularly important for complex math problems.

I'm not quite sure how "math anxiety" differs from plain 'ol test anxiety, but it looks like Ashcraft has written quite a bit about it.

Frankly, this finding is not particularly surprising given all we know about stress' impact on the body, but it does serve to highlight that there are many things that can introduce error variance into someone's test score.

So what can we do about it? The research suggests that orientation/training programs can help with reducing people's anxiety. There are also simple steps you can take as part of the testing process, such as:

- Letting people know exactly what the testing process will be like

- Being available for questions about the process

- For interviews, doing things like offering water, pre-exposing some (or all) of the questions, and telling the candidate to take their time

- Using multiple assessment methods so if a candidate "blows it" on one method they can shine elsewhere

On a related note, although taking these steps can help, they probably won't decrease any differences typically observed between different groups (e.g., men/women, White/Black).

Speaking of group differences, one of the other presenters on the AAAS panel was Dr. Joshua Aronson (of Steele & Aronson fame), who presented on "Stereotype Threat and Sex Differences in Math Performance: New Findings"--looks like he's done some research lately on this topic.

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