Research explores link between test anxiety and sleep deprivation

Students across the country are struggling with a vicious cycle: Test anxiety triggers poor sleep, which reduces performance on the tests that caused the anxiety in the first place.

New research from the University of Kansas has just appeared in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine sheds light on this biopsychosocial process which can lead to poor grades, dropping out of classes and even dropping out. Indeed, about 40% of freshmen do not return to their universities for a second year in the United States.

“We wanted to know what student performance in statistics classes predicted – statistics classes are typically the most feared undergraduate classes,” said lead author Nancy Hamilton, professor of psychology at KU. “This can be a particular problem that can be a sticking point for a lot of students. I’m interested in sleep, and sleep and anxiety are related. So we wanted to know what the relationship was between sleep, l ‘anxiety and performance test to find the correlation and how it unfolds over time. “

Hamilton and co-authors of graduate students Ronald Freche and Ian Carroll and undergraduates Yichi Zhang and Gabriella Zeller investigated the quality of sleep, anxiety levels and test scores of 167 students enrolled in a course. statistics at KU. Participants filled out an electronic battery of measurements and completed sleep mood study diaries in the morning, days before a statistic exam. The instructors confirmed the results of the exams. The study found that “sleep and anxiety feed off each other” and can predictably affect academic performance.

“We looked at the anxiety tests to see if it predicted who was successful, and that was a predictor,” Hamilton said. “It was a predictor even after controlling for past performance of students and increasing the likelihood of students failing in class. When you look at the particularly anxious students, there was an almost five point difference in their score compared to the students who had average levels. They are not little potatoes. It’s the difference between a C-minus and a D. It’s the difference between a B-plus and an A-minus. It’s real. “

Beyond the drop in grades, a student’s overall health could suffer when test anxiety and lack of sleep reinforce each other.

“Studies have shown that students tend to cope with anxiety through health behaviors,” Hamilton said. “Students can use more caffeine to combat sleep problems associated with anxiety, and caffeine can actually improve sleep problems, especially if you use caffeine in the afternoon or evening. drugs. These are things that we know are related. “

Hamilton said universities could do more to communicate the prevalence of testing anxiety to students and provide them with resources.

“What would be really helpful for a university is to talk about test anxiety and talk about the fact that it is very common and that there are things to do for students who are suffering from anxiety on the test, ”she said. “A university can also discuss with teachers what steps they can take to help minimize the effect of the anxiety test.”

According to Hamilton, instructors are also embarrassed by the phenomenon: anxiety and associated sleep problems actually distort instructors ‘ability to measure students’ knowledge in a given subject.

“As an instructor, my goal when writing a test is to assess what a student understands,” she said. “So having a psychological or emotional problem bothers me. It actually hinders my ability to effectively assess learning. It’s noise. It has nothing to do with what they understand and what they know. So I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do that. See if we can find ways to help students minimize the effects of anxiety on their performance. “

The KU researcher said the testing itself was not the problem and suggested that an increase in regular testing could reduce anxiety through regular exposure. However, she said a few small changes in the way tests are administered could ease students’ anxiety as well.

“In classes that use performance-based measures like math or statistics, classes that tend to really induce a lot of anxiety in some students, encourage those students to take five minutes just before an exam to physically write this down. who worries them can help – it’s cheap, it’s easy, “Hamilton said.” Plus removing a time limit on a test can help. There’s really nothing to be gained by telling students : ‘You have an hour to complete a test and what you don’t do, you don’t.’ It’s really not to assess what a student can do – it’s just to assess what a student can do quickly. ”

Hamilton said that in the future, she would like research on the link between test anxiety and sleep deprivation to be expanded to include a more diverse group of students and also to include its influence on distance learning.

“The students in this study were mostly middle-class Caucasian students,” she said. “So I hesitate to say that these findings would necessarily generalize to universities that have a more heterogeneous student body. I would also hesitate to say how this would generalize in our current Zoom environment. I don’t know how this dissipates because the Online exam requests will likely be very different. “

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