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National examination and young pupils: cognitive implications for learning

Research project The Swedish national examination is characterized as formative, i.e. for learning and not of learning. Present project emanates from the introduction of national examination in grade 3 aiming at increasing the pupils’ performance.

Introducing national examination has a negative side. Pupils may experience test anxiety, leading to underperformance and that their result is biased. Another aspect of learning and performance often being ignored is pupils’ cognitive capacity, especially the working memory. To support pupils’ learning it is of importance that the working memory is considered. The working memory, however, has a limited capacity and may be hampered by anxiety. The project focuses the importance of the national examinations for younger pupils.

Head of project

Mikaela Nyroos
Associate professor, research fellow

Project overview

Project period:

2009-01-01 2014-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Education

Project description

The research project “National examination and young pupils: Cognitive implications for learning” emanates from the introduction of national examination in Swedish primary education and the politicians’ belief in those examinations as needed for learning and improvement. Based on the result from last years’ international comparisons of education (e.g. PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS), and the large number of pupils not reaching the national educational goals, especially in mathematics, the Swedish government has come to the conclusion that the educational system is in crisis and in the need of reform, and therefore initiated national examinations earlier in school.
The national examinations in Sweden are characterised as formative, i.e. assessment for learning and not assessment of learning. Still, there is a risk that some groups of pupils experience test anxiety, and consequently meet with future negative vocational and educational consequences. Research has shown that high test-anxious persons perform less well on examinations. Some groups also tend to experience tests very negatively. For example pupils who find it difficult in school are in general suggested to be more affected by tests. Gender is another factor possible contributing to underachievement on examination. Females seem to be more influenced in test situations. Some culture groups may score higher on test anxiety scales, and finally, age could correspond with levels of test anxiety, i.e. elderly pupils report higher levels of test anxiety.
Another risk in school is that not all pupils get the chance to learn what is being examined, due to ignorance of the most important aspect for scholastic development, the cognitive concept of working memory. Working memory is considered to be of significance for successful learning. For poor learners this aspect is in fact of greatest concern for progress and attainment, thus, necessary to attend to in teaching and fundamental in the development of new and effective teaching methods. Neglecting a pupil’s cognitive resources in teaching situations is consequently a hindrance for some pupils to reach their full potential in learning, an ineffective way of schooling, and educational inequity.
Working memory is essential in mathematical learning, as in other types of academic learning, but mathematics includes domains that depend upon different intellectual abilities (e.g. calculation, problem solving), which in turn relate to separate components of the working memory. It is unclear how the components of the working memory model proposed by Baddeley contribute to different operations in mathematics, and in the case of primary school learners the connections seem not to be fully established.

This research project is designed to examine the contributions of three different components of the working memory to a range of mathematical skills in children aged 9-10 years taking the Swedish national examination in mathematics, and to examine the role of national assessment in primary education. Possible negative pupil experience is measured with a standardised scale for measuring test anxiety in children, and tests that assess different working memory subsystems are applied. Scores on the national examination in mathematics are collected. In understanding the dynamic function of and contribution made by working memory and what cognitive component processes involved, the multi-component model of working memory proposed by Baddeley and Hitch composes an applicable framework. To understand the link between worry or anxiety and performance Eysenck and Calvo theoretical information processing model is used.