High-Stakes Testing vs. Anxiety and Metacognition

Reading time: 2
Testing Exams Anxiety


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

Do exams increase student anxiety, and as a consequence, do they impact on metacognitive ability to perform?

Test anxiety and metacognition are intimately linked (Spada et al., 2006)

In a new 26-page paper, Silah et al from the University of California unpick Test Anxiety and Metacognitive Performance in the Classroom, the researchers wanted to assess “how the quantity and relative weight of assessments contribute to the effects of test anxiety on performance and metacognitive accuracy.”

In essence, do high/low stakes tests increase/reduce anxiety and performance to recall.

Methodology used

The research examined a small “seminar-style class on human memory (study 1) and a larger lecture-style class on cognitive psychology (study 2)”. Participants took “six quizzes that were each worth 10% of their final grade (study 1), while in a larger, lecture-style class in cognitive psychology, students took two exams, each worth 40% of their grade (study 2).” In both classes, students “completed a questionnaire both before and after each assessment within the span of the academic quarter (11 weeks: 10 instructional weeks + 1 final exam week).”

The study expected the following:

  1. Student scores and their metacognitive accuracy would significantly increase
  2. Anxiety to significantly decrease from pre- to post-assessment for students in both classes
  3. Students who reported high ratings of trait anxiety also reported significantly higher ratings of anxiety and have significantly lower scores on the assessments, and
  4. Metacognition to significantly interact with test anxiety.

Test Anxiety and Metacognitive Performance in the Classroom, Silaj et al, 2021

The research concludes high-stakes testing is not the fairest way to assess; students are overwhelmed with stress which interacts with their metacognitive accuracy.


In both studies, the aim was to “explore the effects of test anxiety on undergraduate students’ overall performance and metacognitive accuracy and how the frequency and stakes of the assessment influence those effects.”

The researchers found that:

  1. Anxiety decreased from before to after assessments
  2. Overall score calibration increased throughout the academic quarter
  3. Higher post-exam state anxiety was associated with worse assessment performance
  4. Although students were less anxious on completion, they did not recognise that their performance increased
  5. Students were more anxious after the exam when they knew they had performed poorly.

The researchers acknowledged that “we did not consider how the differences in low-stakes quizzes may prompt students to adjust their study practices” and other factors that are at play. For example, collecting “a variety of demographic factors, along with reports and measures of students’ efforts and strategies to prepare for quizzes and exam.”

The research concludes, “less-frequent, higher-stakes assessments may trigger students’ baseline levels of anxiety”. Students will “feel more pressure to perform better on these exams compared to testing environments with more-frequent, lower-stakes quizzes, as each individual assessment would not necessarily have as substantial of an impact on a student’s overall course grade comparatively.

No surprise then, that when politicians argue that end of year exams are the ‘fairest way to assess students‘, we know the jury is out. Further research suggests “students are overwhelmed with stress, anxiety, and worry due to testing in high-stakes context.”

High stakes testing overwhelms students with anxiety and as a result, interacts with their metacognitive accuracy.

We know assessment is good, but at what cost for ‘selection‘ and the ‘mental health’ of our young people.

Footnote: As ever, I’ve only touched the surface of this research to elicit conversations and thoughts for the reader. Please do download the full paper and dig into the research methodology and its details before drawing any conclusions.

Download the paper for your interpretation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.