A study published in the British Journal of Psychology finds being anxious only has a negative impact on results if a child's memory is poor. But if a young person has a good memory, a tendency to feel anxious is linked with getting better marks.
The research assessed 96 children aged 12 to 14 in memory and anxiety tests. A questionnaire established how anxious the children usually felt, and the results were measured against their ability to perform computerised tests involving "complex" or working-memory skills.
"We found that for individuals with low working-memory capacity, increases in [a tendency towards] anxiety were related to decreases in cognitive test performance," the study says. "For those with high working-memory capacity, however, the pattern of results was reversed. An increase in [a tendency towards] anxiety was linearly associated with higher test scores.
"These effects were not better accounted for by gender, age, or time of testing." The researchers say the results of the study should encourage education professionals to target help at anxious children with poor complex memory skills.
"Given that the relationship between anxiety and cognitive performance was only a negative one in the low working-memory capacity group, young people with poor working-memory skills are likely to benefit the most from any intervention that aims to reduce symptoms of anxiety," the report says.
Lead researcher Dr Matthew Owens, who carried out the study at the University of Southampton, said: "The research is exciting because it enhances our knowledge of when, specifically, anxiety can have a negative impact on taking tests.