KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian students seem more relaxed and happier than their Asian peers, who suffer high anxiety about facing examinations.
While 67 per cent of Malaysians worry about taking a test, the percentage is still lower than China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.
Some of the East Asian countries that excelled academically have the highest test anxiety but the lowest life satisfaction, said Li-Kai Chen, a partner of global consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
According to McKinsey's recently published "The Drivers of Student Performance: Insights from Asia" report, anxiety related to schoolwork refers to the extent to which students are worried about getting poor grades, feel anxious when preparing for tests, and get nervous when they don't know how to solve a task.
But in high-performing Asia, which includes countries like Hong Kong and China, even top performers are anxious.
According to Chen, Malaysian students are better off than most of their neighbours but there is room for improvement.
"Lower test anxiety is good but having zero anxiety isn't necessarily beneficial because worrying can contribute to better performance," he said.
He noted that countries which showed high levels of test anxiety such as Japan and South Korea have some of the best performance systems in the world.
"There could be many reasons for test anxiety including high-stakes exams and culture," he said, adding that life satisfaction and test anxiety were non-academic factors that could drive performance.
"Test anxiety is a mindset. How anxious are you even though you're well prepared for an exam?"
He also pointed out another difference: students in high-performing countries like Estonia and Finland have low test anxiety and high life satisfaction.
This was in contrast to many Asian countries where the test anxiety is quite high.
"If high-performing Asian countries are to sustain their reputation for having some of the best school systems in the world, they will need to work on creating more well-rounded students who not only ace standardised tests but can creatively apply that performance," he said.
Chen said given Malaysia's GDP, the country is underperforming in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) although the 2015 outcome showed improvement.
"Malaysia, which is only at the 'fair level', spends the same on education as high-performing Taiwan which is in the 'great level'," he said, but noted that Malaysian students performed below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average.
"It's not about how much you spend on, it's what you spend on," he said.
He said that education reform efforts failed in many countries because they adopted the wrong practices.
"There are no best practices in education system reform. What's more important is putting in the relevant reform.
"If your system is about making a journey from poor to fair performance, you shouldn't be looking at what Finland is doing now. You should be looking at what they were doing 20 years ago," he said.