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Discover how to overcome your test-taking anxiety and fears with actionable strategies.

With expert advice from our guests, Dr Wallace Panlilio and Dr Artyom Zinchenko.

Episode Transcript

This episode transcript has been AI generated for your convenience and accessibility.

William Wadsworth: Hello and welcome to the exam Study Expert podcast. Today I am joined by Dr Artyom Zinchenko, a cognitive neuroscientist and, attention and memory researcher, and Dr Wallace Panlelio, an educational psychologist and former headmaster. They’ve paired up to author the Wisest Learners book series, which is full of useful advice on studying effectively. Now it’s exam season at time of recording for quite a lot of students around the world, certainly here in my native UK. So we’re going to focus our, ah, conversation today in particular on the challenges of taking the test itself and also how to handle the associated stresses and nerves that so often accompany a big set of exams. Let’s meet Artyom and Wallace and dive right in.

Dr. Artyom Zinchenko: Hi, everyone, I’m Artyom. I’m a cognitive neuroscientist working at LMU Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, teaching, doing research. My research interests are in emotional control, conflict processing and long term memory.

Dr. Wallace Panlilio: Hi, my name is Wallace Panlilio and I’m an educational psychologist with a, 14 year experience in, school administration. I used to be the school headmaster, of international schools in the Philippines. I’m, passionate about learning and parenting and teaching. That’s the reason why I’m so excited to be in this podcast.

William Wadsworth: Wonderful. Well, we’re really excited to have you both here. Thank you both so much for joining. So, the book series that you’ve collaborated on is called Wisest Learners. I just wanted to start by asking, what do we mean by this? What does it mean to be a wise learner in our view?

Dr. Artyom Zinchenko: Wise learner. Wisest learner. Someone who, learns non stop. So it’s a lifelong learning experience somehow, characterising, the state of economics, state of science, state of the life nowadays, where many people have to change careers, have to adapt, appearance of artificial intelligence, the new industries appearing and all these industries disappearing. So learning is not something that, stops after you finish school, high school or college, let’s say. I always give this example of my mom who worked in the same bank for all her life almost, right? So it’s quite difficult to imagine it these days where, people change jobs, change positions and roles much more frequently every three to five years. And so a wisest learner is someone who, who is able to adapt, who is able to keep learning, enjoy learning, and someone who knows the best way to learn the material, to whom it’s, second nature, basically. Learning is a non stop activity.

William Wadsworth: Fantastic.

Dr. Wallace Panlilio: Yes. So if I may add, why does learners know how to learn? Because at the end of the day, all of us have something that’s finite. So this will include time, right? We only have so much time in the world. We only have so much energy, can only produce so much effort. And because of that, there’s a need to be optimal in how we do things, especially when it comes to learning, because we cannot, if we have an infinite amount of time, energy and effort. You don’t need our book because you can just take your time, take your error, and just relax and learn whenever and however.

William Wadsworth: I think that’s a great point. Time is limited. We need to be efficient with our time. Yeah, we often talk about the, principle of studying smarter, not harder, on the show, which I think is a, fairly similar philosophy. we want to get the outcomes we’re looking for, but in the most time efficient way. One question I wanted to ask, one of the things that I’ve noticed over the last ten years or so, certainly here in the UK, where I’m most familiar with the school system and the education system, I’ve seen a real kind of shift in terms of awareness from teachers, kind of really engaging with some of the principles of cognitive psychology and kind of taking evidence based approaches to many of the things you write about. I feel like we’ve still got work to do. I feel like we’ve come a long way, but we’ve still kind of got work to do in terms of getting the messages out there and helping people really engage with them. I just kind of wondered what your experiences were, maybe thinking about your global perspective on other school systems beyond the UK. What are you seeing going on in Germany, in the Philippines and Asia? Singapore? Is it sort of a similar story to the UK? What’s going on around the world in terms of education’s engagement with many of the kind of evidence based ideas you write about?

Dr. Artyom Zinchenko: I have quite a positive experience here in Germany, in our school, in Munich, seeing how teachers and school administration implements evidence based approaches. And one of the things that I first noticed when whatever we see in research studies is being implemented in school is when teachers are trying to, set some goals for students to reach, let’s say, improve, your reading skills. So what they’re doing is that they’re trying to foster the internal locus of control so that students would be the ones who are setting the goals and then the students have to sign a small contract so they sort of agree and that’s their goal. And so they’re then motivated, they’re more motivated to move on with their tasks and move on with their goals. So on the one hand I see that there are these steps being implemented that are really in the right direction, really research, ah, science backed. But there is still a need for improvements. There is a need to let the students understand that indeed their own decision to progress in this or that direction and to try to follow their goals.

William Wadsworth: I think that’s an excellent point. I wanted to ask are there kind of one or two areas in particular where you feel there’s the biggest gap between current practise, what people are doing and the potential if they kind of use the strategies that you’re recommending and outlining where are kind of the biggest opportunities for growth and improvement? If you had to narrow down on kind of one or two based on.

Dr. Wallace Panlilio: My exposure to the schools that I managed, one thing that I have to kind of like fight against that sense is making sure that academic programme is not test based only. Unfortunately, there can be that overwhelming pressure for schools, understandably that every single minute will be focused on improving tests because for other countries it might result to certain financial implications you do on the test and you get a better ranking, or your students get to, will get admitted to certain schools, so and so forth. So that’s something that I would emphasise. Will be important for schools to, to be aware of and resist the temptation to just focus on tests.

Dr. Artyom Zinchenko: From my point of view, there are many areas where improvements are necessary, definitely for parents, for teachers, for students and given that waltz just spoke about, you know, test taking and exams, in addition to fixating too much on tests, there is also, I feel not so much being done in the direction of managing test anxiety in students. And there is a lot of evidence that up to 40% of students experience test anxiety at different stages of their academic, you know, in different stages of education, be it school, elementary school, middle school or high school or college. And there are different reasons why that could be the case. But I think one interesting aspects of it is that test anxiety is something that is most likely experienced not only by students who experience difficulties with learning. So, you know, underperforming students, but also those who are excellent students, straight a students.

There is this work by Plante I think, and colleagues, 2022. So what they did, they surveyed almost 1600 students transitioning from elementary school to secondary school. And what they found, interestingly, is that the math knowledge in the end of elementary school predicted students, test anxiety in the first year of secondary school. So there was this relationship there. But interestingly, there was sort of an equally high test anxiety levels, in the lower 20% of students. So those who were getting the poorest marks, great. And those who are in the top 20%. So for the students who found it difficult to learn, for them, it was quite challenging because there was this, parental expectations. There was this pressure from teachers. Yeah. So to perform better, to not be a poor student, but, also for high, performing students, it was a challenge to maintain their high status. And again, there was, maybe just as much pressure from their parents and from peers, and there’s this expectation from them to succeed. So test, anxiety can be really a strong hindering factor in education. And oftentimes it goes unnoticed. it can be viewed as a student is lazy or does not perform well, but it could be the fact that someone just gets, really frozen or, you know, unable to think at the moment of tests. But let’s say 15 minutes after the test is gone, when people get calm, immediately they could, you know, remember the answers. And, yeah. So in the book, we speak about, different relaxation techniques, how to, calm oneself down and how to, you know, prepare oneself for the test.

And one sort of study that I found really interesting and somehow, giving hopes is that study by Theobald and colleagues from Germany, 2022, I believe. So, like really recent work and what these authors did, they had a large group of students. So it was a group of about 400 students who were preparing to take a high stakes exam. So it was a university entrance exam. And to pass the test, these students were offered computers where test questions from the last few years were, provided, on different computers. And, you know, the students could come into testing rooms or into the computer rooms every day and study and train. What the students did not know is that their performance on these computers, was locked. So researchers could find out how many minutes they studied a day and then how many attempts they had to answer questions, how many of those they got correct and what was their improvement rate, and after the exam. So the grades were known, and they were trying to then use this information from the training phase to predict the grades, just to see what sort of performance or what, qualities were important for, final exam. And it was found that indeed it was confirmed that the higher the stress level in students, the lower the grades were. So there was a negative relationship between the grades on high stakes exams and test anxiety that was known and that’s the core of the problem, it seems. But interestingly, the test anxiety level played absolutely no role after accounting for the knowledge how much the students learned in these, three months of test preparation. Which means that by using the proper strategies and learning, well, trying to remember information well, can reduce the effect of test anxiety, even if it’s present. Just being well prepared is enough to overcome this. So this could be, ah, a big solution.

William Wadsworth: It’s very comforting finding in many ways, because that’s something you can control.

Dr. Artyom Zinchenko: Exactly. So this is something that is completely, in the control of the students. So one should really prepare well. The problem is I feel that sometimes the students, may use learning strategies that are not most optimal. They can spend hours trying to, road memorise things or try to, you know, mass learn something. Just try to concentrate on one topic for the next 10 hours and then switch to something else and never come back to that, the topic they’ve learned. That is not the most optimal way because we simply tend to forget things that we do not rehearsal, we do not review periodically, we do not come back, we do not try to reach into our long term memory and remember things, you know, strengthening these connections between working memory and long term memory that leads in poor performance. So what we suggest is that, yes, test anxiety could be overcome by studying, but one just needs to follow the best learning strategies that would result in the most successful outcome.

William Wadsworth: So I think that’s an incredibly important recommendation, even if just from a, Well, it’s not much fun to be anxious perspective, even if we’re going to bring home the marks at the end of it. Are there any other recommendations you have in terms of different. You mentioned relaxation techniques, for example. Is there anything else you might suggest to a student who’s feeling particularly anxious ahead of an upcoming exam, other than kind of the critical importance of what you were describing a moment ago of learning your material? Well, is there anything else we can do to help manage those, those stresses and nerves?

Dr. Wallace Panlilio: There’s one strategy that they can, also apply, which is what we call, cognitive restructuring. So you manage the words, the phrases that come to your mind and focus on, for example, positive affirmations, use words that will, that will be helpful for you rather than, bring you down. So with something like this, it’s to recognise the importance of words in a person’s vocabulary. Especially when one prepares for an exam as one gets well prepared, right. It’s to be able to make sure that all that effort will not be undermined because of Let’s say just a negative thought. Very often when people are anxious, what comes to mind will be a lot of negative, negative thoughts, right. Negativity which will then be manifested in their body language, in their behaviour. And it creates a downward spiral. Unfortunate. When I was in Melbourne about a year ago, I had the opportunity to be with the son of my family friend who shared with me that he was very nervous about starting school in Melbourne as a freshman college student. And asked him, why are you so nervous? And he said that because his experience as a high school student, as a grade school student was that he would always fail and he wasn’t able to get out of it. it was manifested simply from my conversation because in his mind he was a failure. And the reality of it is that no matter how much techniques a teacher or parent or a mentor or a coach will teach the child, if the person, if a learner is unable to get over certain mental hurdles, then that will be very tough. And that’s the reason why we emphasise the holistic aspect. So it’s so important that every learner should be able to manage their own personal narrative. So when they talk to themselves, when we talk to ourselves and we not just in test taking, right. Every time, we need to be able to control that because otherwise those negativity will control us.

Dr. Artyom Zinchenko: That’s a very good point.

William Wadsworth: I was wondering if you could maybe give us a concrete example of a kind of a negative train of thought, such as you’re describing. And then you know, what you would suggest doing or thinking or like how would you actually go about changing that?

Dr. Wallace Panlilio: So, so as an example, if he he just thought of himself as a failure. So for him it’s the words where something akin to even if I study hard, it will not make a difference. No matter how much I put in the work, I will still fail. So that’s heartbreaking, right. For parents, for teachers to hear because we, we want them to suck, see? Right? So with that, we will need to sit down with them and to break that mental spell, if you may call it such. Where like. No, if you work hard, that can make a difference. If you work harder, then that can make a difference. If you work harder and smarter, that can make a difference. So we will just need to make sure that you’re working harder and smarter. Harder, smarter, wiser. Right. So it’s really a very holistic aspect to it. And the more that a learner will be exposed to this kind of like positive affirmations, this kind of, positive coaching, then it will be, quite helpful to overcome that. But for sure, it’s not going to be easy because I’ve seen this in so many students.

William Wadsworth: That’s great advice. Well, thank you both so much for all your great advice today. It’s been really, really fun chatting. I just want to. Before we go, two final things. So firstly, if you could share maybe one kind of just favourite little tip or nugget each that hasn’t come up in the conversation so far, and then tell us a little bit about where we can find your published works to learn more about all the good things that you teach.

Dr. Artyom Zinchenko: So basically, just to wrap up with, the test anxiety, I think the best approach to fight this is to treat tests as just a measure of your current state of knowledge, where you are and, if you have challenges, something you have to improve or something that you, you know, you’re. You’re fine. So tests do not define you as a person. It’s like a charge on your smartphone. I like this analogy very much. You know, if you have a smartphone that is low in charge, doesn’t mean it’s a bad smartphone, right? It’s just, a phone that needs to be charged. And the tests outcomes should be treated the same way. If you have lower grades, it means you need to study better or need to improve on specific aspects that you may have problems with. If not, then not. So that would be my piece of advice, I would say. And if you’re interested in the book, one could find it on Amazon. Wallace, would you like to comment more on this?

Dr. Wallace Panlilio: So, we wrote this book because we wanted to do the heavy lifting for teachers and parents and students. We know that everyone’s so busy, right? And I wish I had this book when I was a school administrator. But now that there’s this book, I, really encourage teachers to find the time to, get this on Amazon. And we have our website,, so that you’ll find that, a lot of these things, you don’t have to do the research anymore because we did the heavy lifting for you. And even if you just read one page, I’m sure you’ll get something out of it.

William Wadsworth: Yeah, you’ve both done a fantastic job in the comprehensiveness of what you’ve put together. So, yeah, highly encourage people to cheque that out and we’ll put the link in the show notes. Once again, thank you both so much for being here. And, yeah, really enjoyed talking and wishing you all the best for your current and future work. Thanks again.

Dr. Artyom Zinchenko: Thank you so much.

Dr. Wallace Panlilio: Thank you, William.

William Wadsworth: Well, thanks again to Wallace and Artyom. do cheque out the wisest learners book series. It’s a great and very comprehensive primer on all the topics that I think students should really know about to study well. So do cheque that out. And if you’re hungry for more tips, specifically on test taking and navigating exam season successfully, little tips and tricks you can use to increase your score when you’re sitting in the exam itself, why not cheque out the little course I have on that topic? It’s called exam success secrets, and you can learn more about that at there’s a little pre exam planning workshop to help you figure out your exam game plan plan and lots of juicy little practical tips that will add up to potentially quite a useful advantage in terms of extra marks, just, through kind of cunning and perfectly legal, perfectly allowed tactics. No cheating, of course, that you can use in the exam hall. Help yourself get the mark you deserve after all your hard work. That’s at m. Exam secrets on the podcast over the next few weeks, we’re going to be sticking with the theme of navigating the ups and downs that so often come with, academic success and navigating some of the stresses that we all face along the way. Starting with a, really excellent episode that I’ve got for you next week on the topic of burnout. this was something that was coming up quite a lot in conversations with my coaching clients and listeners and the exam study expert community. And so I really wanted to find someone who could talk, with some authority on the subject of a burnout and and how to avoid it, how to avoid getting burned out in the first place, how to, what to do when you are burned out. And I think I found just the person in Hannah Haringer in next week’s episode. She’s not kind of super, super widely known. She’s making a little bit of a name for herself, but I think over the next few years she will become far more widely known. She’s an absolute gem, and just such an incredible authority on this subject. I was so impressed. I was so blown away, by her, depth of insight in the interview I had with her. I was really, really impressed, by her as a guest. And so I think there’s a really good episode coming for you next week, which I’d highly encourage you to cheque out. So I very much look forward to your company next week for that. In the meantime, if you’ve got exams coming up at the moment, I just want to wish you every success. Very best of luck. You’ve got this.

Today we are joined by two experts on the topic of effective learning, or “wise learning”: educational psychologist Dr Wallace Panlilio and cognitive neuroscientist Dr Artyom Zinchenko.

Artyom and Wallace guide us through what it means to be a wise learner, and how you can apply that knowledge when it comes to managing anxiety about taking tests and exams.

They pair plenty of takeaways from recent research studies into test anxiety in students with concrete advice and strategies you can apply to minimise your stress this exam season.

* * * *

Find out more about Dr Wallace and Dr Artyom’s work: 

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Hosted by William Wadsworth, memory psychologist, independent researcher and study skills coach / trainer. I help ambitious students to study smarter, not harder, so they can ace their exams with less work and less stress.


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