Test anxiety is truly an unruly beast, eager to sabotage us during our most important moments. Fortunately, all kinds of strategies work well at taming this beast. If you’ve ever struggled with maintaining peak performance in the face of stress, consider adding expressive writing to your arsenal.
Gerardo Ramirez and Sian L. Beilock, researchers from the University of Chicago, unraveled an interesting knot of interactions:
– Worries lead to poor test performance.
– Expressive writing helps regulate worries.
– Expressive writing should lead to better test performance.
These researchers devised a series of tests to test their hypothesis that expressive writing benefits high-stakes test performance, especially for students who tend to worry in testing situations, by reducing rumination. They created a high-stakes math testing environment in their lab and amped up the pressure among subjects. Then, subjects spent 10 min either sitting quietly (control group) or writing as openly as possible about their thoughts and feelings regarding the math problems they were about to perform (expressive writing group). Control participants choked under pressure, showing a 12% accuracy drop from pretest to posttest. The expressive writing group, on the other hand, showed a significant 5% improvement in accuracy.
To further explore this issues, Ramirez and Beilock conducted further laboratory study along with two randomized field experiments testing students taking ninth-grade biology. Did their earlier findings hold up? Yes, and then some…
“We demonstrate that a short expressive writing intervention reduces performance deficits commonly associated with high-pressure testing situations. The benefits of expressive writing are especially apparent for students who are habitually anxious about taking tests. Expressive writing eliminates the relation commonly seen between test anxiety and poor test performance. Moreover, it is not any writing that benefits performance, but expressing worries about an upcoming high-pressure situation that accounts for enhanced exam scores under pressure.”
TAKE AWAY: Do you know someone prone to test anxiety? Ask that student to set aside 10 minutes before a big exam to write about their and feelings about the upcoming exam. Negative self-talk like “I am afraid I am going to make a mistake” is perfectly acceptable and to be encouraged as long as these statements reflect genuine concerns. Getting it all out before the test will reduce rumination and allow the student to focus more fully on the task at hand.