The world can tend to feel a bit different at exam time, thanks to stress, exhaustion and way too many not so healthy (but so delicious) study snacks. And then there’s anxiety, hanging on a little too tightly. If only during the exam it would take itself quietly off to, you know, somewhere else, there would be no problem, but it doesn’t tend to work like that.
When it’s there it feels awful and can affect performance. You have enough to worry about at exam time so anything that can turn down the dial on exam anxiety has to be a good thing, right? Well here you go …
Researchers have found that a simple writing exercise can ease exam anxiety and greatly improve exam performance.
In a recent study, college students were given the opportunity to unload their test anxiety by writing about their exam worries for ten minutes before an exam. The idea was that by doing this, the valuable mental resources that were being taken up by worrying were freed up and made available to work on the exam.
According to associate professor of psychology Sian Beilock who co-authored the study, stressful situations take up working memory – the part of the brain that powers the retrieval and use of information. We only have a limited amount of memory, so the more that’s used up by worrying, the less there is available to nail the exam.
Beilock is an expert on ‘choking under pressure’, a phenomenon that sees really capable people falling apart at the point of performance, not just in an exam room but also on the sports field, a high-stakes business meeting, an interview or anywhere there’s high pressure.
The Study: What they did.
As part of the study, college students were given two maths tests. In the first one there was no pressure – students were told just to do their best.
The second one though! Just before the exam, researchers told students that the ones who did well would receive money and that other people in the team were depending on their success. On top of this, they were told that they would be recorded and reviewed by other teachers. Stressed yet?
Half the students were given ten minutes to write about how they were feeling about the test. The other half were told to just sit quietly.
What they found:
The students who wrote about their worries showed a 5% improvement in accuracy between the first maths test (given before the writing) and the second maths test (given after the writing). The group of students who didn’t write showed a 12% drop in accuracy between the two tests.
All up, that’s a 17% difference in performance between the people who wrote and the people who didn’t.
The results were replicated in a subsequent study with 9th grade biology students. Before an important finals exam, students were instructed to either write about how they felt about the test or to think about topics that weren’t related to the test.
Those who didn’t write had higher anxiety and performed worse than those who had, even when the student’s ability was taken into account. The writing task seemed to level the effect of anxiety – those in the writing group who had high exam anxiety performed just as well as though who weren’t as anxious. Out of the high anxiety students, those who wrote before the test averaged a B+ whereas the non-writers averaged a B-.
And finally …
The effect seems to be brought about writing specifically about thoughts and feelings related to the test, not just by writing in general.
Writing about your worries in relation to the task at hand is likely to be something that will help performance in all types of challenging situations – speeches, presentations, interviews, sports – not just exams. That’s good news for everyone – the world could always do with more brilliance. Exams measure ability and talent at a single moment in time and the reading of true potential can be skewed if anxiety steps in. Anything that can let potential shine through regardless of confidence or the tendency to be anxious is a good thing.
Pen, paper, now go be awesome.