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Educational neuroscience
Learning & performance
Issue Date: 
Office of Education Research, National Institute of Education, Singapore
Khng, K. H. (2020). Effects and mechanisms of a deep breathing intervention for test anxiety: An exploratory study on the use of mobile EEG headsets in educational research. National Institute of Education (Singapore), Office of Education Research.
Test anxiety is a non-trivial issue in schools, especially in settings with high stakes examinations like Singapore. It is estimated that 10–40% of students, as young as age 7, suffer from test anxiety (von der Embse, Barterian, & Segool, 2013). Test anxiety can adversely impact psychological well-being and performance; schools are recognizing the need to equip students with skills to ameliorate the adverse effects of test anxiety. One technique that has been found to help children with test anxiety is deep breathing. In the PI’s previous ERFP study, it was found that teaching children to take deep breaths before a timed math test reduced their feelings of anxiety and enhanced their test performance (Khng, 2017). However, although it was hypothesized that deep breathing might enhance performance by increasing attentional focus, the authors found no significant effects of the deep breathing intervention on reducing behavioural measures of interference on a Flanker task (Eriksen & Eriksen, 1974), commonly used to index inhibitory control of attention to distractors.

Interventions, such as attention training, have at times been found to enhance brain functioning at the neurophysiological level without necessarily manifesting as improvements in direct behavioural performance. For instance, an attention training study with preschool children found EEG indicators of a more efficient executive attention network following training, despite the lack of significant behavioural effects during an attention task (Rueda, Checa, & Cómbita, 2012). Thus, the deep breathing intervention might have enhanced attentional focus at a neurofunctional level, at the level of brain functioning—even if no evidence was found at the behavioural level—and translate into better performance on the math test.

Electrophysiological and neuroimaging data are important sources of information for validating the efficacy/effects of interventions. Many interventions for children are carried out in the schools especially if they are educationally relevant. However, collecting data such as electroencephalography (EEG) from children during school-based tasks or interventions is difficult due to the costs and physical constraints of conventional equipment. High-resolution, medical/research-grade EEG systems tend to be very expensive, cumbersome and take a long time to set up, and can be uncomfortable for the child. This can deter children from participating in EEG studies, and limit the possibilities of collecting data for large-scale, school-based interventions. The recent development of low cost, lightweight, wireless, mobile EEG headsets that are quick and easy to set up and reasonably comfortable for children to wear, brings new possibilities to collect ecologically-valid EEG data in situ, during large-scale, school-based interventions.
Note: Restricted to NIE staff only. Contact author for access to report.
Project number: 
OER 08/15 KKH
Grant ID: 
Education Research Funding Programme (ERFP)
Funding Agency: 
Ministry of Education, Singapore
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