SEATTLE — A simple writing exercise can relieve students of test anxiety and may help them get better scores than their less anxious classmates, a new study has found.
The report in Friday's edition of the journal Science says students who spend 10 minutes before an exam writing about their thoughts and feelings can free up brainpower previously occupied by testing worries and do their best work.
"We essentially got rid of this relationship between test anxiety and performance," said Sian L. Beilock, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study with graduate student Gerardo Ramirez.
Psychologists, educators and parents have known for a long time that the way students perform on a test does not necessarily indicate what knowledge they bring to the table. Test anxiety is fairly common in classrooms, especially in the United States because of its "increasingly test-obsessed culture," Beilock said.
Test anxiety can lead to poorer grades and lower scores on standardized tests and college entrance exams, which can condemn talented students to inferior colleges.
Laura Brady of Basking Ridge, N.J., had a high level of test anxiety as a student. She remembers walking out of a linear algebra study session in college because she thought she was having a heart attack.
She called her mother, who helped Brady, 44, talk her way through her anxiety: "I'm sure she said stuff like, 'At the end of the day, does it matter how you do on this test?'"
Although the attorney still experiences some anxiety before entering a courtroom, she says talking to herself before the trial helps her deal with her nervousness. With her three young sons, she emphasizes effort over achievement.
"That's a struggle I have constantly because there was so much emphasis on achievement in my childhood," Brady said, adding she believes our education system's emphasis on testing has led to much anxiety in the classroom.
The University of Chicago researchers found that students who were prone to test anxiety improved their test grades by nearly one grade point – from a B-minus to a B-plus, for example – if they were given 10 minutes before an exam to write about their feelings.
The researchers tested their hypothesis with college students in a lab setting and with high school students in the classroom, by first gauging the level of test anxiety and then offering the writing intervention to some students.
The researchers believe worrying competes for computing power in the brain's "working," or short-term, memory. If working memory is focused on worrying, it can't help a person recall all the information his brain stored in preparation for the test. It also affects the working memory's ability to stay focused.
Beilock said the idea for the writing exercise came from the use of writing to combat depression.
Expressive writing, in which people write repeatedly about a traumatic or emotional experience over several weeks or months, has been shown to decrease worrying in people who are depressed.
Beilock believes this research is applicable to all kinds of performance anxiety – from giving a speech to interviewing for a job.
"There's a lot we can do to change how we think about the pressures and thus how we perform," she said.
Beilock's book on related research, "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To," was published in September by Simon and Schuster.
Beilock and her lab are among the leaders in research on the causes of choking under pressure and what might help relieve it, said Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Markman said this report does a good job of taking theoretical research and applying it in an actual classroom.
"This outcome is exactly what her previous work would predict, but going from laboratory studies to more realistic settings is a bridge that is often difficult to cross," said Markman, who does not have any connection with Beilock's report.
The next stage of the research project, which is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, will involve a look inside the anxious brain to see how it changes during stressful situations, Beilock said.
She also hopes to develop more interventions to help people perform better during stress. Her lab is looking at how awareness of stereotypes affect the way people perform, such as women and math phobias.
A big believer in getting science out to people who can use it, Beilock said the writing interventions don't require a lot of time, money, resources or training. She hopes parents, teachers and students will start using them right away.
"There's a lot of pressure put on students to perform at high levels. Parents and teachers can do a lot to either increase or decrease the pressure they feel," she said.
Human Performance Lab, University of Chicago, http://hpl.uchicago.edu/