Failure rates in science, tech, maths and engineering (STEM) subjects among poor pupils could be halved by reducing their anxiety levels immediately before exams.
Researchers found that low-income students who adopted strategies to calm their nerves before a science exam were significantly less likely to fail.
Students from low-income backgrounds are much more likely to fail in STEM subjects at school which can prevent them pursuing related careers.
The latest findings suggest that helping highly-stressed students regulate their emotions could lead to better exam performance.
This was achieved by getting students to face their fears and work with stress to boost their performance, rather than worry about it.
The study, conducted by Stanford University, was carried out on a group of 1,175 freshman science students at a public high school in Illinois, with 285 students coming from a low socioeconomic background.
Almost 40 per cent of low-income biology students at the school were predicted to fail their course.
The lead psychologist on the study, Dr Christopher Rozek, said that feelings of inadequacy in low-income student groups was likely an important factor behind the academic achievement gap.
While psychological interventions won’t close the achievement gap purely through better scores, says Dr Rozek, better exam result will give more students the option of continuing their studies in STEM.