Learning and the effect of Anxiety on recall 


Psychologists have long studied the process of memory and taking exams is broadly speaking a memory exercise.  Some memory is required for a conscious recall of facts (episodic and semantic memory) which require cues and some memory is procedural which does not require conscious recall.  For example, remembering a maths formula needs to be ‘remembered’ whereas the way to hold your pen, write and turn pages of an exam is procedural and does not need to be consciously ‘remembered’.


Research suggests that the brain has a short term memory and a long term memory - To input information into the LTM requires ‘rehearsal,’ in other words teaching, to move it from the STM to the LTM.  Once stored in the LTM to recall the information needs a ‘cue’  In some cases an acronym can be helpful.  It can also be a situation.   Studies suggest that the circumstances in which the information and cue are learned are significant in recall.  It is called the encoding specificity principle -  If the situation in which the learning takes place and the cue is learned are similar it is easier to recall the information.  Ina practical sense if you learn something in a classroom, you are more likely to remember the information in a classroom too.  If you learn something at home at the kitchen table you are less likely to remember it in a classroom setting.  Cues are most effective if present at coding (moving information into the long term memory)  and retrieval This is very simplistic but does go someway to suggest that learning and exams should ideally take place in a similar place.


In real life terms this means that children are more likely to remember the things they have learned and are trying to remember if the circumstances of both are similar.  Therefore group lesssons, with different teachers and unknown classmates are a good replication of the circumstances in which the children will be tested and should help to improve their memory of what is required for the exams.





Many studies demonstrate that anxiety has a distinct effect on memory.  Anxiety causes psychological arousal in the body which prevents us paying attention to cues so recall is worse.  In other words taking an exam in a state of panic means that children will be unable to remember anything they know.  That very state of anxiety interestingly means that their recall of the actual examination will be heightened but that is not what you want.  


Ideally children should enter an exam feeling confident that they have been well-prepared, having the fact that they are clever and talented reinforced and aware that the exam is a ‘Challenge’ not something to be frightened about.  The word challenge suggests to them that it is an activity, within their powers and worth trying hard for.  

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