Pre-Test Jitters? Writing About Them Eases Worries

A 10-minute writing task could be just what the teacher ordered for clearing a panicky student's mind prior to taking an important test, a new study suggests.

Students who were prone to test anxiety improved their test scores by nearly one grade point after they were given 10 minutes to write about what was causing them fear, the researchers found.

The exercise likely gave tense students an outlet for their anxieties before the test, and as such, freed up brainpower that had been tied up with worrying, explained the study's senior author Sian Beilock, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago. [Related: 7 Mental Factors That Are Bad for You]

The study, supported by the National Science Foundation, is detailed in the Jan. 14 issue of the journal Science.

Choking under pressure

That tied up mental power is called working memory, and it's linked to a brain region housed in the prefrontal cortex. Working memory can be thought of as a "mental scratchpad" of sorts that allows a person to hold information in memory while accomplishing tasks at the same time. 

In other research, Beilock has shown that pressure-filled situations can deplete working memory. The result can mean choking under pressure.

In fact, her past research has shown that it's the high achievers who are more prone to choking under pressure than others. That's because while working memory is important for navigating tough reasoning tasks, it is not always optimal to rely on it. In nerve-racking situations, high-achieving individuals may try to manage every little nuance to insure that they come out on top. The result can be performing below their skill level.

Exam jitters

In the new research, Beilock and her colleagues ran two lab experiments and two experiments in classrooms. In the laboratory studies, students took a pre-test math exam for which they were told to "do their best." Then they took a math test under conditions designed to elicit either lower or higher levels of performance pressure. For 10 minutes prior to this test, students in one group (called the control group) sat quietly while another group wrote about their test-related worries. A third group wrote about an unrelated, unemotional topic.

Results showed that both the control group and those who wrote about some unrelated non-expressive topic had a 7 percent drop in accuracy compared with their pre-test scores. The expressive writing group showed a significant 4 percent bump in accuracy between pre- and post-tests.

In the classroom studies, ninth-grade students were randomly assigned to an expressive writing or control condition immediately before a first final exam. The researchers figured if such expressive writing alleviates the impact of worries on performance, then students most prone to pre-test butterflies should benefit the most from the writing exercise.

Six months before the final exam, students answered questions meant to gauge their level of general test anxiety. Then about half of the students completed the expressive-writing task while the other group wrote about an unrelated topic. In the group that wrote about an unrelated topic, the students with high test-taking anxiety scored lower than the calmer participants.

When the researchers analyzed the final exams taken during the prior fall, winter and spring semesters (before the writing task was completed), the anxious students all performed similarly. But during the experiment, those prone to exam jitters who wrote about their feelings scored 6 percent higher on the final exam than did the anxious students who wrote on an unrelated topic.

Even if a teacher does not provide a chance to write before an exam, students can take time to write about their worries and should improve their performance accordingly, Beilock said.

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