January 17, 2011

Nervous About an Exam? Write it Down

By: Rhonda Craig, Ivanhoe Health Correspondent

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Researchers say simply writing down your worries right before an exam can prevent you from choking on a test.

Investigators at the University of Chicago found students who were prone to test anxiety improved their grade scores by nearly one grade point after they took 10 minutes to write about the source of their worries.

"When people write, they gain a greater understanding of the cause of anxiety, and when coupled with a greater insight on what to do about it, it can actually lead to benefits," first study author, Gerardo Ramirez, told Ivanhoe.

In order to find out if students could benefit from writing in the classroom, researchers recruited 20 college students to see if writing about their fears boosted their performance on two math tests. Before the first test, students were asked to simply do their best. On the second test, researchers created a stressful situation for students by telling them that the best performers would get paid and that other students would be depending on their good score as part of a team effort. Researchers also told students their work would be videotaped and later reviewed by teachers.

Ten of the students were then given 10 minutes to write expressively about their feelings about the upcoming tests, while the other 10 were told to sit quietly. The researchers predicted that writing immediately before a big event would be enough to prevent students from choking and actually improve their test scores.

"The expressive writing group performed significantly better than the control group," the authors wrote. "Control participants 'choked under pressure,' showing a 12-percent accuracy drop from pre-test to post-test, whereas students who expressed their thoughts before the high-pressure test showed a significant 5-percent math accuracy improvement."

"We found that a brief 10 minute intervention where students wrote about their worries about their upcoming exam was able to reduce choking under pressure in math," Ramirez concluded.

Researchers say worrying can deplete a part of the brain's processing power known as working memory, which is critical to daily life. They found the writing exercise allowed students to unload their anxieties before the exam and freed up brainpower needed to complete the test successfully.

SOURCE: Science, January 12, 2011