Test Anxiety: Can Emotional Regulation Improve Your Grades?

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Test Anxiety

It is common to feel anxious before taking a test and while some experience the harmless “butterflies in stomach” feeling, others are severely impacted. Statistics show that low-income students are less likely to complete four years of high school science in comparison to high-income students. This prevents students from low-income families to major in science at a post-secondary level which means that they are unable to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  

When looking at a midwestern high school, 40% of students from low-income families were assured to fail their biology course. They had internalized feelings of inadequacy which lead to high levels of anxiety prior to taking a test/exam. As a result of low self-esteem and anxiety, these students received poor grades.

Experimental Study

In previous studies, researchers found that reducing performance anxiety can improve test scores. Researcher Rozek and colleagues decided to carry out a study of their own at a large public high school in Illinois. At this high school, a little over half of low-income students fail their biology exams whereas only 6% of high-income students have failing grades. Rozek and colleagues took 1175 grade 9 biology students and placed them in four different groups. Of the 1175 students, 285 of them were from a low socioeconomic background.

Control group

Group 1: Told to ignore anxiety

Experimental groups

Group 2: Told to write about fears (method to clear headspace and focus on exam)

Group 3: Told to read a statement about the benefits of physiological responses to stress like a racing pulse or sweaty palms. (benefits include helping with attention)

Group 4: Told to write about fears and read statement

After writing the exams, it was found that of the 205 low-income students in the experimental groups (groups 2-4), 168 of them passed. However, only 49 out of 80 low-income students in the control group (group 1) passed.

To put it in context, 82% of low-income students placed in the experimental groups passed their exam compared to 61% of low-income students in the control group. On the other hand, students from high socioeconomic backgrounds were not affected by any of the interventions.


This study helped demonstrate that self-confidence and emotional regulation is an important factor when taking a test. A passing grade on an exam is not entirely based on knowledge of material, but on mind-set as well. One reason why the interventions did not affect students from high-income families is because they may be more proficient in emotional regulation when compared to students from low-income families. However, it is important to note that an interest in math and science is necessary for a student to pursue a STEM career. While improving test scores may not necessarily increase the rate of students in STEM, it at least gives them the opportunity to explore science and math subjects without feeling like they are set for failure.


C.S. Rozek et al. Reducing socioeconomic disparities in the STEM pipeline through student emotion regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online the week of January 14, 2019. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1808589116.

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller is a licensed School and Clinical Psychologist currently based in Toronto, Ontario, with 31 years of practice experience in two countries. Prior to his time in Canada, he spent the first half of his career in South Africa. Dr. Muller has a Ph.D. with specialization in Psychotherapy from the University of Pretoria, and a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. He also has a second Masters Degree in Practical Theology from the University of Stellenbosch.

Dr. Muller has worked in many settings including school boards, addiction centres, correctional institutions, the military, churches, and private practices. Spending time in these organizations has allowed him to gain an astounding amount of experience in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan preparation and application.

Dr. Muller also has training and exposure to Neurofeedback Training, Somatic Experiencing, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and managing cultural differences. In his spare time, you can find him hiking, travelling, working on his photography, poetry, and spending time with his family and friends.

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