Improving your exam performance when under stress

Stress and Memory


Many of us know the unsettling experience of memory failure under stress. It is particularly well known to students who find themselves ‘going blank’ during the pressure of exams. Underpinning the impact of stress on memory is some interesting biochemistry. During periods of stress, the body releases cortisol, which prepares the brain for new learning at the cost of the retrieval of old learning. A cruel biological joke played on many during an exam.

The ‘solution’, given to many students by counsellors and academics alike, typically takes the form of a) develop strategies for managing anxiety/stress (e.g. relaxation, breathing techniques) and b) study effectively, so the information has been well-learned in case of anxiety during the exam. In this post I look at some research that focuses on the second of these: how to learn information so the recall of it is resistant to stress and anxiety.

A common method that students use for studying effectively for exams is self-testing, such as using flashcards. This involves having a question on one side of a card, and the answer on the other. Students revise the material until they can get the answer right, at which point they move on to the next card. This is a robust learning method. Previous research has suggested that students typically use a ‘criterion of one’ in this process. This means that having got the answer correct once, they move on to the next item/card. Cards are removed from the pack as they are correctly answered. Thus each answer is typically recalled/retrieved correctly just once in a study session.

Whilst common practice, there is further evidence that engaging in additional retrieval/recall practice can increase subsequent recall rates quite markedly. That is, requiring yourself to correctly recall the answer more than once, helps lay down a more robust memory. It is hypothesised that this extra practice also helps make memory of the information more resistant to the effects of stress and anxiety.

Researchers from Tufts University and the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center tested this question in a couple of experiments published in Behavioral Neuroscience. They wanted to know if repeatedly testing oneself on the same items improves recall under situations of high stress. They constructed two experiments to test this, using two different time periods mimicking a) cramming the night before an exam (24 hour recall) and b) studying for a future exam (1 week recall).

The experiments worked liked this:

On Day 1 (let’s call it the ‘learning day’) groups of students were first asked to learn a list of 40 Swahili words (Swahili word: English translation) presented individually and in a random order for 5 seconds each. They were then tested on their recall of those words by having the Swahili word presented and being asked to type the English translation.

Half the students were then guided to continue studying these words using a ‘criterion of one’ approach where they were only tested on words that they hadn’t previously got correct. That is, once they had successfully recalled the English translation for a Swahili word once, they were not tested on it again.

The other half of students were guided to continue studying the words using a multiple retrieval approach, where they were asked to recall the translations for all words 3 times.

In experiment 1, the students were then brought back the following day (24 hour recall). Half were exposed to a stress/anxiety induction process (they had to give a 2 minute speech and complete complex mental arithmetic: both assessed) whilst half were given neutral tasks (reading and self-timed math problems). Their recall of the 40 words was tested on 2 occasions of 20 words each.

In experiment 2, a different set of students were brought back the following week (1 week recall) and a similar process took place. Their recall of the 40 words was tested before and after a stress induction.

What did they find?

So there were a number of findings. Let’s work through them one at a time.

First – there was no difference between the two learning methods on Day 1 – the ‘learning day’. Whether it was the ‘criterion of one’ method or the multiple retrieval method, both methods appeared equal in terms of how easily the students learned the words.

Second – In both experiments, the efforts to make the students stressed/anxious the following day or week definitely worked as evidenced by both students reporting feeling more anxious, and showing it via increasing cortisol levels. Clearly public speaking and complex math problems continue to be highly anxiety provoking!

Third – When it was only a day between learning and tested recall, there was no difference between the ‘criterion of one’ and the multiple retrieval methods of study in terms of recall. Stress also had no effect on recall.

Fourth – When it was a week between learning and tested recall however, the multiple retrieval method was superior to the ‘criterion of one’ method under both stressed and non-stressed conditions. Stress still reduced recall, but it was attenuated by the multiple retrieval method.

What does this mean?

The authors concluded – ‘for those studying for exams that are several days or weeks away, such as high-stakes standardized tests, the results of Experiment 2 suggest that additional retrieval practice may yield the best memory access. This advice is consistent with the broader retrieval practice literature, in which learning to a criterion of three (i.e. three successful retrieval attempts) is recommended for optimizing long-term memory and time spent studying

For your own study habits, consider keeping the flashcards in the pack for longer than just a single recall. This both improves overall recall, but also the resistance of recall to stress and anxiety, a common student affliction in the context of exams.

For other evidence based study tips visit –

For other exam related tips, see some of my previous posts in preparing for exams –

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