Writing Your Worries Away

Experiencing sweaty palms, a rapid heart rate and nausea shouldn’t be the standard response before taking an important exam. However, for many students this has become a debilitating reaction when the pressure to perform academically affects their test scores.

I became more aware of this situation when my 13-year- old niece started “choking under pressure” on her math exams. She did well at solving problems in class. She completed her homework on time and received good scores. But when it came to the day of a math test, she would become anxious, her stomach would hurt and she failed to complete all the questions on the test. Consequently, her parents focused on personally sitting down to help her with homework assignments, assuming this would overcome her anxieties.

So it was just by chance that I picked up the January 14, 2011, issue of Science to read over lunch, when I came across the title “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Performance in the Classroom”.  The title seemed counterintuitive though. Writing about fears makes them disappear? But as I’ll convey here, timing is everything.

The authors, Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock from the Dept of Psychology and Committee on Education, at the University of Chicago tested the idea of applying a 10-minute, pre-exam intervention to help reduce anxiety and improve test scores. The “intervention” was based on psychological theories of stress and performance. Previous studies on performance pressure showed that worrying competes with available Working Memory (WM) to recall information. The WM is part of our short-term memory system. So when worries arise, information needed from WM for a given task is displaced, resulting in poor performance of that task.

The authors reasoned that if they could disrupt the loss of WM information, then information would be available to complete the task under pressure i.e., boost test scores. The “intervention” the authors proposed was an expressive writing exercise where students write about their fears of not performing well on an exam (e.g., describing consequences).

They conducted two in-lab studies (study 1 and 2) with college students and two random field studies (study 3 and 4) with ninth graders in the classroom. For the college students the performance measurement was the number of math problems they answered correctly (% Correct). For the ninth graders, the measurement was % Correct on their final biology exams compared to three quarterly exams (Fall, Winter, Spring exams versus Final exam) scores.

For the in-lab study, the college students (n = 20) were asked to complete math exams under a low-pressure situation and a high-pressure situation. In the low-pressure environment, students were simply asked to do their best on the exam (pretest scenario). In the high-pressure situation, students were told that if their scores improved from the pretest score, they could earn a cash reward. However, to earn the money there were strings attached. A student’s score would be combined with a partner’s score so both would need to improve to collect the prize.  Just before the test, the student was told his or her partner had improved their score, so now getting the reward depended on the student performing well. To add to the stressful scenario, the student’s exam would be videotaped and watched by their professors and fellow students.  In my opinion, this last torturous touch is about as bad as publically defending your thesis on the Today show.

After explaining this high-pressure situation, the students either spent 10 minutes before the exam sitting quietly (control group) or writing about what would happen if they failed (expressive writing group).  The difference between pretest (low pressure) and posttest (high pressure) scores were averaged for these two groups. Surprise—the expressive writing group showed a 5% improvement in %Correct values, which was a statistically significant increase over their pretest scores. The control group students however, choked under pressure with a 12% drop on their posttest scores.

Study 2 had the same low-pressure and high-pressure scenarios, but now the control group was allowed to write before the exam about nontest topics (unrelated writing). This was to observe if the act of simply writing could distract the mind from worry. Here the unrelated writing group showed a 7% drop in %Correct, whereas the expressive writing group showed a 4% improvement from pretest to posttest scores. So writing about specific negative thoughts had a greater impact on alleviating test anxiety than just writing about the pony-keg party the night before (remember we are talking about college students here).

Now out to the real world with the ninth graders. The authors used expressive writing intervention on two groups of ninth graders, study 3 (n = 51) and study 4 (n = 55), where the groups were one year apart from each other. Apparently, college admissions requirements calculate a student’s grade point average (GPA) beginning with the ninth grade GPA. The students know this fact, and so a high-pressure situation is created at the end of the academic year. High final exam scores are the last chance for students to improve their GPA.

But how do you account for differences in test-performance anxiety among students? The authors had students perform self-assessments by ranking statements about themselves on a scale of 1 to 4 (“During tests I often think about failing…”). The higher the rank, the higher their testing anxiety was.  All this evaluation was completed six weeks before the final biology exam.

On the day of the final biology exam, students were given an envelope (all students were conveniently in the same room) with instructions for a short assignment to be completed within 10 minutes before the exam. Half the students were instructed to write about their thoughts on the exam (expressive writing group) and the other half was asked to write about a topic not covered on the exam (control group). The researchers then compared test scores from the Fall, Winter and Spring exams to this Final exam score.

After pooling study 3 and 4 test scores, the researchers first wanted to understand the correlation between exam scores and test anxiety. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, the control group showed a strong correlation between high anxiety and low test scores. However, in the expressive writing group there was no correlation! It’s as if worrying had no impact on test scores at all with these students.

So how did the Final exam scores compare to previous exam scores (Fall, Winter and Spring)? But wait—before we compare, let’s split the students into high-anxiety versus low-anxiety groups and see if there really is any benefit from intervention for those who worry the most. Looking at the high-anxiety kids, the expressive writing group showed a 6% improvement in test scores over the control group on the Final exam. There was no difference in Fall, Winter or Spring test scores between the expressive and control groups. So high-anxiety students, writing specifically about their fears on final exam day, went from a B– to a B+ compared to the high-anxiety students who wrote about unrelated topics. The low-anxiety students didn’t show any benefit from an intervention (no difference between the control and expressive writing groups). It was gratifying to see that the high-anxiety, B+ students received the same grade average as the low-anxiety students in biology.

For such a short intervention exercise (10 minutes) to have such a meaningful impact on a student’s test scores is quite surprising to me. Now the challenge is how to apply this potentially useful tool in a public school system without drawing attention to kids under self-imposed pressure already. It seems the expressive writing task would have to be applied to all or none of the students. Helping a student cope with test anxiety is of course only one facet for helping them improve their GPA. I’d be curious to learn about other techniques any of you parents have found successful in helping your kids improve their grades (e.g., more sleep, flash cards, etc.)—at any grade level.

ResearchBlogging.orgRamirez G, & Beilock SL (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6014), 211-3 PMID: 21233387

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Maria Perr


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One thoughtful comment

  1. The pressure put on kids to perform well in school these days is almost criminal. People are asking them to grow up so much faster by taking college level classes and doing so many extracurriculars and everything else that’s deemed necessary for them to get into college. College is important, but people should not be robbing their children of being children before their time.

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