Psychology Ph.D. Dissertations


The Efficacy of Acceptance Based Behavior Therapy Versus Cognitive Therapy for Test Anxiety and Working Memory Performance

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

William O'Brien

Second Advisor

Marilyn Motz

Third Advisor

Clare Barratt

Fourth Advisor

Abby Braden


Test anxiety is a major concern among today’s college students. Test anxious students demonstrate consistently diminished performance compared to their less anxious peers. Although the adverse impact of test anxiety on academic performance is well documented, there is active debate about the way that anxiety affects performance. Cognitive interference theory (CIT) may help explain this relationship. CIT suggests that test anxiety leads to increased levels of off-task thoughts, which are processed by the working memory, which leaves fewer resources to manage the task at hand. Traditional test anxiety interventions such as cognitive therapy focus on reducing anxiety by increasing positive or neutral self-talk which may place additional demands on cognitive resources. This may explain the modest improvements in cognitive performance and at times adverse effects associated with these traditional test anxiety interventions. Alternatively, acceptance based interventions, which promote nonjudgmental acceptance of anxious thoughts and feelings, may allow students to conserve cognitive resources that can be used to focus on the task at hand and maximize performance. To explore these possibilities, a sample of 88 university students were randomly assigned to receive one 2-hour acceptance based behavior therapy intervention (ABBT), cognitive therapy intervention (CT), or healthy living intervention (HL). Following the intervention, participants received anxiety inducing instructions and were administered three computerized working memory tasks. Finally, participants completed self report questionnaires. The results of this study demonstrated that participants in the ABBT group had significantly better performance on the digit span forward and Stroop tasks compared to participants in the CT or HL groups. Furthermore, the ABBT group demonstrated the lowest levels of cognitive interference, while demonstrating the highest levels of psychological flexibility and mindfulness compared to the CT or HL groups, while these between group differences did not reach significance due to low power, the pattern of these results demonstrates support for the role of these variables in the anxiety and performance relationship.