New study: writing about test anxiety improves test performance

15 Feb

Every year, we see dozens of great students who complain about horrible test-related anxiety. Their grades are great, they prep for the ACT for months, and they still worry they will choke at the end. If you are in this category, check out this cool new research! Researchers found that writing about exam worries for 10 minutes before the exam significantly improves students’ results.

Before the ACT starts, instead of sitting around at the test center trying to keep down your breakfast, WRITE. Write about all your fears relating to the test, all your college admissions anxieties, all your worries about what that cute girl in bio might think if you don’t score as well as she did. Then report back and let us know how it went! Here’s the article:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/01/13/writing-about-exam-worries-for-10-minutes-improves-student-results/

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6014/211

It’s a feeling you’ve almost certainly experienced before – the fear of waiting for an exam to start, heart thumping, palms sweating and brow furrowing. You worry about whether you’ve prepared adequately, and about the consequences of failure. So why not write these worries down? Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock have found that students do better in exams if they spend the prior ten minutes writing about their worries. Even better, the most anxious students showed the biggest improvements.

People often choke under pressure, performing far worse that they ought to. There are many reasons for this. For physical tasks, such as taking a penalty kick in football, people under pressure become overly conscious about their own actions. This disrupts the automatic side of familiar movements, turning experts into rookies. For mental tasks, anxieties about performance compete for the same mental resources that we need to succeed. In particular, these worries crowd out our working memory, which juggles small pieces of information and keeps is focused on the task at hand. Beilock is something of an expert on these issues. As the author of Choke, she has literally written the book on the topic. Together with Ramirez, she reasoned that writing exercises might help to reduce pre-exam worries, freeing up enough resources for working memory to function at its best. It was a sound idea. After all, psychologists have used expressive writing to help depressed people from spending too much time ruminating over their thoughts.

At first, Ramirez and Beilock tested their solution in the laboratory. They asked 20 college students to take two advanced arithmetic tests and put them in a high-pressure scenario, involving the prospect money and the judgment of peers. Before the first test, the students were simply told to do their best. Before the second test, they were told that they had been paired with a partner, who had already finished and improved on their original score. If the volunteer could do the same, both partners would earn money. If not, neither would get anything. To make things worse, their performance would be filmed and watched.Before they started the second test, half of the students sat quietly and the other half wrote openly about their thoughts and feelings on the pending exam. Ramirez and Beilock found that although both groups scored similar marks after the first relaxed test, the ‘writing’ group did much better at the second intense test. Their scores improved, rising by an extra 5%. By contrast, the students who sat quietly actually did worse; their marks were 12% lower.

Reference: Ramirez & Beilack. 2011. Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom. Sciencehttp://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1199427

2 other articles linked at the end are as interesting:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2009/04/16/simple-writing-exercise-helps-break-vicious-cycle-that-holds-back-black-students/

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/11/25/15-minute-writing-exercise-closes-the-gender-gap-in-university-level-physics/

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