How anxiety affects learning

According to new research, eight and nine year olds with high levels of trait anxiety learn more slowly than age-mates with lower levels of trait anxiety. The research, in which 119 students at three Canberra primary schools participated, is one of a series of investigations that have been carried out in Canberra primary schools by developmental psychologist, Phillipa Butcher and a team of Psychology Honours students. The goal of the investigations is to understand the cognitive mechanisms which link the tendency to become anxious to poor school learning. If we can understand these links, psychologists and schools can work together to minimise the impact of anxiety on learning.

Typically developing eight and nine year olds carried out a verbal learning task in which they heard a series of 15 words five times. After each presentation they were asked to repeat all the words they could remember. Children were also asked about their tendency to worry and to feel the physiological symptoms of anxiety (trait anxiety). Children with high levels of trait anxiety (scores > 85th percentile) required five trials to reach their best learning performance while those with lower scores required only four trials. The highly anxious children also recalled fewer words when tested 25 minutes later.

A supra-span verbal learning task such as the task used calls on high level memory and attentional processes. Memory processes retain then retrieve information pushed out of the focus of attention by the stream of incoming information. Attentional processes switch attention between the processing of new input and the maintenance of previous input. Anxiety impaired both the memory and the attentional processes. Interestingly, higher levels of anxiety impaired learning more strongly in boys than in girls.

Adults often think of childhood as a carefree period. In fact children worry about lots of different things. For some it’s social interaction on the school yard, for others important exams like the national assessment program - literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN), while yet others have things to worry about at home. While a moderate level of anxiety is likely to help a child learn optimally, these findings show that the high levels of anxiety found in some children actually impair their learning. Fortunately they also suggest ways to work against this: by reducing the demands made by a learning task on high level information processing we may be able to reduce the gap in learning efficiency that differences in anxiety levels create.