“If I can’t answer this question, I’ll fail the whole exam”: Examination anxiety, GCSE achievement and tendency to draw the worst possible conclusion

W. Symes, D. Putwain, E. Connors

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General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations represent a significant source of worry and anxiety for students in their final two years of compulsory education, referred to as Key Stage 4 in the UK (Denscombe, 2000; Putwain, 2007). A small inverse relationship has been reported between the appraisal of examinations as threatening, as measured through the test anxiety construct, and GCSE achievement (Putwain, 2008). Test anxiety is hypothesised to have an interfering effect on achievement through occupying cognitive resources, however it may not be the perception of examinations as threatening that is responsible for interference effects, per se, but how the student responds to that threat (Putwain, in press). Some students respond to test anxiety with a ‘catastrophic’ response in which they find it difficult to read and interpret questions, and to recall material required to respond to assessment demands. In contrast, other students respond to test anxiety with a positive response in which they will persist in trying to answer questions and experience a ‘return’ of material required. The present study aims to investigate this relationship further by examining whether the strength and/ or magnitude of the test anxiety – GCSE achievement relationship is influenced by the tendency to catastrophise and draw negative conclusions about events, as measured through the cognitive distortions construct. Two schools were recruited following a mailshot inviting participation. Self-report data for test anxiety and cognitive distortions were collected from 224 students in their final year of compulsory schooling, approximately six weeks before GCSE examinations began. Test anxiety data was colleted using the Revised Test Anxiety scale (Benson et al., 1992), whilst cognitive errors data was collected using the Children’s Negative Cognitive Error Questionnaire (Leitenberg et al., 1986). Questionnaire order was counterbalanced and presented in a single pack. Examination performance data was collected in Mathematics, English Language and Science. GCSE Grades (A*-G) were converted to a numerical value (8-1). Results indicated an inverse relationship between GSCE achievement and two components of test anxiety: worry and bodily symptoms (headaches, muscle tension, etc.). The magnitude of the GCSE achievement – worry relationship was increased by catastrophising (a belief in the worst possible outcome) and selective abstraction (selectively focusing attention on the negative elements of a situation) and the GCSE achievement – bodily symptoms relationship was increased by selective abstraction only. These findings are broadly consistent with those reported in both UK and international contexts. They provide further evidence that in the high stakes context provided by the GCSE, test anxious students who experience high levels of worry and/ or bodily symptoms, may be achieving less than their low test anxious counterparts. The findings in this exploratory study are useful in establishing the nature and direction of interactions between test anxiety and students’ response to this anxiety, which could be used to inform the development of subsequent research and treatment. They suggest that interventions which focus directly on reducing examination-related worries may not be as effective as those which focus on both worry and bodily symptoms test anxiety. Secondly, the cognitive element of interventions may benefit from specifically and explicitly addressing a student’s response to test anxiety.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2009
EventBritish Educational Research Association (BERA) Conference - University of Manchester, United Kingdom
Duration: 2 Sept 20095 Sept 2009


ConferenceBritish Educational Research Association (BERA) Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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