Ryan is a bright student; he understands lectures, finishes homework early and has an eye for detail. However, Ryan’s test scores do not reflect the diligent effort he puts into studying. His teachers are concerned and same is true for his parents. Ryan has had many sessions with the school counselor who diagnosed him with test anxiety. Test anxiety or anxiety related factors can affect the performance of students in exams and other classroom tasks. A significant body of research exists on the type of stressors on students that implicitly affect test performance. Anxiety-related performance deficits can have a selective bias towards students who are less affected by such stressors.
According to Derakshan & Eysenck, (1997), “ Anxiety is a prominent and pervasive effect that occurs when our current or future goals are threatened”. Successful task performance is dependent on a. Attention, b. Working memory and c. Shifting functions. The “Attentional Control Theory” by Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, (2007) talks about attentional control in the context of anxiety and cognitive performance. This is one of the path breaking studies that showcase how cognitive performance of individuals might be affected by the anxiety related states or traits. The Attentional control theory builds up from the theoretical basis of the Processing Efficiency Theory (Derakshan & Eysenck, 1997). As per the Attentional Control theory, in a high anxiety scenario the two mechanisms of attention i.e. goal-directed and stimulus-driven attention both are equally disrupted. As anxiety increases, there is an increased prevalence of stimulus-driven attentional system and decrease in the goal-directed attentional system.
Cassady & Johnson, (2002) also conducted a study that sought to answer two questions; a. can there be a new measurement of test anxiety? B. what is the relationship of test anxiety with gender, procrastination, emotionality and student performance. The results of the study showed a multimodal effect of student procrastination, gender and emotionality on anxiety levels before and during examinations. Cassady and Johnson, (2002) highlighted the contextual nature of exams by factoring information such as procrastination and emotionality to provide a better understanding of the underpinnings of test anxiety.
A scientific paper by Dutke & Stöber, (2001) also talked about a similar aspect of attention study which showcased the levels to which cognitive performance can be affected in test anxiety scenarios. Students who suffer from test anxiety often have face problems while displaying optimum cognitive skills under test conditions. Dutke and Stober, (2001) showed that subjects suffering from test anxiety, performed better and made less errors than their peers in tasks requiring higher coordinative complexity and high sequential demands.
The neural processes that are responsible for individual level difference in trait anxiety and visual-spatial working memory (WM) are still unknown (Qi et al., 2014). However in the absence of such detailed understanding we can explore the individual level effect of anxiety traits on exam performance of students. Therefore, I hypothesize that students under exam related stress or anxiety might not perform as well as students who have better coping mechanisms. Based on the existing research I found two distinct ways in which anxiety affects cognition, a, it does not allow us to pay attention which is required to perform certain cognitive skills and second, the spatial working memory of the participant is diminished.
A recent study conducted by Lufi, Okasha, & Cohen, (2004) also showed that test anxiety has a significant impact on the personality of the students. The study conclusively proved that there is a significant depreciation in IQ test performance in students. Yehuda, Rabinovitz, & Mostofsky, (2005) found that the levels of anxiety related behavior in students decreased when students consumed a fatty acid mixture. The test performance of anxious students also improved after consuming the Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acid mixture (PUFA). The study by Yehuda and associates (2005) is among the very few studies that show how test anxiety can be relieved in students. This study can be used to better test results in students suffering from test anxiety and help them achieve academic goals. Therefore, we see that a significant number of questions on test anxiety has been already answered but there are a few more, which still need further investigation.
In this study, I want to investigate the differences of anxiety levels in a student sample group and how their personality and anxiety level together affect outcomes of academic achievements in an experimental setup. Exams put a significant amount of mental stress on students, however, does the amount of stress translate into lower academic performance? Furthermore, does the personality of a student along with a high anxiety score pre-disposes them for a below-average performance in the exam hall? To answer these questions, I will take a sample of 100 students and based on Test Anxiety Inventory and a Personality test divide them into high risk and low-risk groups. Then both the groups will be subjected to a phase of relaxed testing environment that will judge their attention and working memory performance, which will be followed by an “exam hall” experience where the students will be stressed with extrinsic rewards, clicking timers, an examiner and other factors to simulate an exam center experience. Similar studies on test anxiety have been conducted before, but none of them looked at both personality and anxiety levels together as a predictor for loss in attention and spatial memory. My Null Hypothesis (H0) is that there will be no difference in attention and spatial working memory scores between the two groups (high and low risk). The alternate hypothesis (Ha) is that there will be a significant difference in cognitive abilities of the two groups during the “exam hall” scenario.
The participants will be selected from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and between different age-sex classes. Both genders will be equally represented in the sampling design; the ideal ratio should be 1:1 for males and females. The participants will be screened on an exclusion criteria based on the presence of serious health condition, or the incidence of any in the last six months, personal history of psychotic illness, and immediate familial history of psychotic illness. The participants will also be scored on the Beck Depression Inventory (Beck, Ward, & Mendelson, 1961). Participants who will score less than 12 on this depression scale will be selected for the study. We will also test the minimum IQ performance of the participants based on the National Adult Reading Test (Nelson, 1982). Participants who will score more than 90 on the IQ tests will be selected for the study. By following these protocols, I will ensure that the test subjects participating in the experiments do not have any cognitive impairments that might predispose them to fare poorly in the cognitive tests.
Test Anxiety Inventory
The participants will first answer the questionnaire on Test Anxiety Inventory (Spielberger, 1980). Based on the results of this test, participants who score more than mean will be grouped in the ‘High anxiety” group and participants scoring less than mean scores will be grouped in “low anxiety” group(Lufi et al., 2004).
Multiphasic Personality Test
Lufi and associates (2004), in their study, tried to see the effects of test anxiety on the personality of students. I will try to see of personality of the students has any significant impact on the attention level and spatial working memory test. A Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 test (Butcher, 1989) will be administered, and students will be classified in a high-risk and a low-risk group. The participants will be rated on the following attributes as per the personality scale; Hypochondriasis, depression, hysteria, Psychopathic deviate, masculinity-femininity, paranoia, psychasthenia, schizophrenia, hypomania, and social introversion. The data from the personality scores will be collated with the Test-Anxiety scores and students getting high scores on paranoia, schizophrenia, hypomania, social introversion, psychasthenia will be included in the high-risk group. Students scoring lower than the mean-standard deviation will be included in the ‘low risk’ group.
The participants from each group will be asked to undertake an Attentional Network Test (ANT) and a Spatial Working memory test under two conditions. In the first condition, participants will be asked to take the test with relaxing music playing in the background and no time constraints. In the second phase, the participants will be given a sum of $10 and $1 will be deducted for each wrong response. During this phase the participants will be exposed to a large clock with ticking hands, which will chime loudly after each minute. When no reward is involved and when reward is provided but each negative answer may lead to drastic losses.
Attentional Network Test
The Attentional Network Test (Fan, McCandliss, Sommer, Raz, & Posner, 2002), measures the attentiveness of the subject based on three factors viz., Alerting, Orienting and Executive control. The test measures response time of participants to visual stimuli shown on a computer screen, which may or may not be correlated with visual cues. Two features of the test are, a. the hint given which indicates the area where the target will appear, b. whether the target appears in congruence with the hint or not and how quickly the participant adjusts to it. The subjects will look at a computer screen with a cross at the middle of the screen. As the test starts, an asterisk will appear followed by a directional arrow pointing left or right, the participant has to indicate the direction at which the arrow is pointing by clicking the left or right mouse button.
The alerting effect is measured by calculating the mean response time of the double-cue conditions ( higher values of the alerting effect indicates higher accuracy or speed and it shows that subjects can respond fast when already primed with information. Orienting effect is calculated by subtracting mean response time of the spatial cue conditions from the mean response time of the center cue (a higher value indicates how fast participants can allocate attention when cued to look at a certain direction). The executive control is calculated by subtracting the mean RT of all congruent conditions from all incongruent conditions (higher value indicates that the participant can divert attention fast when provided with wrong information). The response time of the participants will be measured in this test. In the second phase of the test (exam hall scenario) participants will be given $10, and $1 will be deducted if they cannot click on the right direction of the arrow within 2 seconds. There will be ten trials of this test for each session. The participants will also wear earphones during both control and experiment; during the experiment phase (exam hall condition), a ticking sound will be played through the earphone.
Working Memory Test
The participants will be also required to undergo the Spatial Memory task (“Cognitive tests: Spatial working memory,” n.d.). In this test, the participants need to remember the position of a colored block on the bigger square consisting of nine grids. The participants are shown the position of the square and a series of arrows are flashed on the screen and then they are required to move the block as specified by the arrows. There can be more than one big square in the game, so the test will start with one grid and one block and then move on to include more grids as the number of trials increase. The colored block will never be at the same area twice and during the second phase (exam hall condition)) participants will be given a sum of $10 and each time they select a square where the block has been before they will be penalized $1.If the participant choses correctly, they can keep $1 from the $10 pool. There will be ten trials of this test for each session. The Time limit for each trial will be 5 seconds, the participants will wear earphones (during the control as well as the exam hall condition) that will play a clock-ticking sound as soon as the trial starts. Measures for this task is the between search errors i.e. the number of times a block is selected. During the control phase the earphones will play nothing.
This study will have a mixed factorial design with one within subject factor; the baseline and the anxiety induced session). The between subjects factor was the type of group in which the participants were placed (high risk and low risk).
The statistical analysis will be carried out in IBM SPSS software. The performance of the participants on the attentional Network test and a the Spatial Working memory test was carried out using ANOVA with one between subject factor i.e. the groups (High anxiety and low anxiety) with two levels of tests ( High anxiety level and low anxiety level) and one within subjects factor (session) with two levels (baseline and experimental). The results will show if there is any difference in the attention levels and spatial working memory of the participants from the high and low anxiety groups.
Based on the information gathered from the personality scoring scale, we will make regression models that will have combination of different personality ( the scores on each scale for high and low risk groups) as the independent variable and the reaction time in the attention test for alert, orienting and executive as the dependent variables. The best models will be selected based on the lowest AIC (Akaike Information Criterion) values.
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