Anxious Students Gain on Tests by Writing About Fears

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This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

Some students get so nervous before a test, they do poorly even if they know the material. Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago in Illinois, has studied these highly anxious test-takers.

SIAN BEILOCK: "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. I talk about it as your cognitive horsepower that you could otherwise be using to focus on the exam."

Professor Beilock and another researcher, Gerardo Ramirez, have developed a possible solution. Just before an exam, highly anxious test-takers spend ten minutes writing about their worries about the test.

SIAN BEILOCK: "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. 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."

The researchers tested the idea on a group of twenty anxious college students. They gave them two short math tests. After the first one, they asked the students to either sit quietly or write about their feelings about the upcoming second test.

The researchers added to the pressure. They told the students that those who did well on the second test would get money. They also told them that their performance would affect other students as part of a team effort.

Professor Beilock says those who sat quietly scored an average of twelve percent worse on the second test. But the students who had written about their fears improved their performance by an average of five percent.

Next, the researchers used younger students in a biology class. They told them before final exams either to write about their feelings or to think about things unrelated to the test.

Professor Beilock says highly anxious students who did the writing got an average grade of B+, compared to a B- for those who did not.

SIAN BEILOCK: "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. Those students most prone to worry were performing just as well as their classmates who don't normally get nervous in these testing situations."

But what if students do not have a chance to write about their fears immediately before an exam or presentation? Professor Beilock says students can try it themselves at home or in the library and still improve their performance.

The researchers wrote about their findings in the journal Science.

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report. Tell us if this writing intervention works for you. Or tell us how you deal with anxiety before a big event. Share your comments at voaspecialenglish.com or on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. You can also find us on YouTube and iTunes at VOA Learning English. I'm Steve Ember.


Contributing: Jessica Berman

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