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Four Reasons a Bright Child May Not Test Well

February 8th, 2018 by Sarah Adams

In the educational system today, exams seem more and more to define achievement. Standardised exams used in primary, secondary school, as well as college exams are used to judge performance, ability and intelligence for many different facets. However, children who do poorly on tests are not necessarily less intelligent than those who do well on tests. Many factors can cause smart children to do poorly on tests. The following paragraphs will touch on four of those factors.

Stress / Anxiety

High anxiety or stress can make thinking clearly and focusing on the task at hand hard for anyone. This stress is often brought on by the feelings of pressure to perform well. This pressure may come from a variety of sources; it may come from instructors, peers, parents, or students themselves, fearing the consequences of doing poorly. Educator Monica Rouse, writing for, notes that when stress manifests itself mentally, the usual response is panic. This panicked state of mind may temporarily "paralyse" the student when it is time to take a test.


Having self confidence is a tremendously valuable trait, but when it comes to test taking, being overconfident can be a serious flaw. Bright students often do well academically without having to put a whole lot of effort into things. Such students might approach test taking with the thought in mind that they won't have to try very hard to succeed. This thought pattern can prevent them from properly preparing for a test. Rouse says that when these children are presented with an unexpected challenge (a difficult test, for instance), they have a "tendency to become anxious and give up before they have even started the task."

Lack of Motivation

Yet another factor that can lead bright children to do poorly on tests is a lack of motivation. "Who cares about this stuff?" "Why do I have to know this?" Questions like these can enter the mind of any student. It is the job of teachers and parents to show and stress the relevance of the education students are receiving. If a student can't see the "why" connection, then they are likely to remain unmotivated and put no effort into learning or doing well academically.


On the other end of the motivation spectrum is perfectionism. Rouse describes perfectionism as "the result of an advanced learner's high level of motivation to succeed." Perfectionists are inclined to pay great attention to details. This inclination can be troublesome on tests that are timed because the student may feel the need to read instructions or questions several times to be sure they understand completely and consequently run out of time before they have finished the test. Rouse says these students may also feel as though they need to answer the questions in the correct order. This can negate time as well, as a student may not allow him or herself to leave a question unanswered before continuing on to the next question.

Essay tests or questions can be troublesome for the perfectionist as well. The student may feel pressure to write a perfect essay; leading them to erase and start over again and again, or not even begin to write the essay until they've formulated the perfect response in their mind. This sort of behaviour will inevitably end up leaving the student without time to finish.

These are just some of the more common reasons for bright children doing poorly on exams other reasons exist. Fortunately there are many strategies available to help students become better test takers. The key is to identify the cause, or causes, of the individual student's low performance.

Categories: Exams