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Study examines ‘vicious cycle’ of student test anxiety, poor sleep

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A cycle of test anxiety and sleep problems plagues a number of college students, according to a University of Kansas study. (Source: Adobe Stock)

As college students wrap up their spring semester finals this month, a recent University of Kansas study seems to confirm what many of them may already know: test anxiety often occurs with sleep problems in a way that negatively impacts test results and even leads to lower course grades for many.  

KU Professor of Psychology Nancy Hamilton recently led a study to examine what she called a “vicious cycle” of test anxiety triggering poor sleep, which in turn reduces students’ performance on the tests that caused their anxiety in the first place. 

To get insight into how anxiety and sleep predict exam performance, the study evaluated 167 KU students enrolled in a statistics class. The research team measured specifics about their sleep habits over the two days prior to a major midterm exam by using electronic sleep diaries; questionnaires were used to measure their levels of test anxiety during the two-day study period.

“We looked at test anxiety to determine whether that did predict who passed (the exam), and it was a predictor… even after controlling for students’ past performance … and increased the likelihood of students failing in class,” Hamilton said. “When you look at students who are especially anxious, it was almost a five-point difference in their score over students who had average levels of anxiety. 

“This is not small 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,” she said.

Beyond its impact on grades, the ongoing cycle of test anxiety and poor sleep could eventually affect students’ overall health, leading to problematic use of substances like caffeine, alcohol and other drugs, Hamilton said. 

For their part, universities could do more to communicate with students about how common test anxiety is and provide them with resources for dealing with it. Instructors can also play a role in breaking the cycle, taking steps like eliminating time limits on tests and conducting less comprehensive exams more often, she suggested.

Hamilton said that in the future, she is interested in broadening research into the link between test anxiety and poor sleep to include a more diverse group of students, and also to factor in its influence on remote learning – especially considering the pandemic-related trend of taking exams mostly online.

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