Researchers say they've developed a way to help people with extreme test-taking anxiety to relax before their exams. The technique involves having test-takers write down their fears, and that simple exercise is credited with a dramatic improvement in test scores.
Many people are nervous before they take a test. But some people are so consumed by anxiety that they actually sabotage themselves, performing poorly on the exam even when they know the material they are being tested on.
Sian Beilock is a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago in Illinois who has studied why students become so nervous that they are unable to perform in a test-taking situation.
"They start worrying about the consequences. They might even start worrying about whether this exam is going to prevent them from getting into the college they want. And when we worry, it actually uses up attention and memory resources,” he said. “I talk about it as your cognitive horsepower that you could otherwise be using to focus on the exam."
Beilock and colleague Gerardo Ramirez developed an exercise in which students identified as high anxiety test-takers spend ten minutes, just before an exam, writing down all of their fears and concerns.
The researchers tested the intervention first in a group of college students and then in younger students. They found that students who spent a few minutes describing their fears in writing seemed able to put those anxieties behind them before beginning their exam.
"What we think happens is when students put it down on paper, they think about the worst that could happen and they reappraise the situation,” Beilock explains. “They might realize it's not as bad as they might think it was before and, in essence, it prevents these thoughts from popping up -- from ruminating -- when they're actually taking a test."
In a series of laboratory experiments, a group of 20 anxious college students was given a short math test and told to do their best. Afterwards, the students were either asked to sit quietly before taking the test again or to write about their thoughts and fears regarding the upcoming retest.
Researchers created a stressful testing environment, telling the students they would receive money if they did well on the second test. The researchers also told the students their performance on the retest would affect the grade of other students.
Beilock says the group of students who sat quietly before retaking the second math test scored worse, their accuracy dropping by 12 percent on the second test.
But students who wrote about their fears immediately before the re-test showed an average five percent improvement in accuracy on the second math test.
Researchers next took their writing intervention to younger students in a biology class, who were instructed before final exams to either write about their feelings on the test or to think about some other topic.
Researchers found that students who hadn't written about their fears had higher test anxiety and a worse final exam score.
Highly-anxious students who took the intervention received an average grade of B+, compared with the highly anxious students who didn't write; they received an average grade of B-.
"What we showed is that for students who are highly test-anxious, who'd done our writing intervention, all of a sudden there was no relationship between test anxiety and performance,” Beilock said. “Those students most prone to worry were performing just as well as their classmates who don't normally get nervous in these testing situations."
Beilock says that even if a professor doesn't allow students to write about their worst fears immediately before an exam or presentation, students can try it themselves at home or in the library and still improve their performance.
An article on writing to relieve test-taking anxiety is published in the journal Science.