Having students write about their anxiety before a high-stakes test, for 10 minutes, can reduce or eliminate the performance loss caused by nerves, a new study finds.
College students were given a challenging math test involving a subject they hadn’t encountered before (but whose rules could be learned quickly). Then they learned they’d win $10 if they increased their score on a second test, and that their performance would also determine whether another student got $10. To add to the pressure, they’d be videotaped and their methods evaluated.
Before Test 2, the students either sat quietly for 10 minutes or wrote about what they were feeling. The nonwriters “choked,” the researchers said, with their scores dropping by 12 percentage points. But those who wrote about their anxiety raised their scores by four percentage points. Also, in field studies in real high-school biology classes, students with high text anxiety scored the equivalent of a B-plus on a final exam when they did the writing exercise, and B-minus when they didn’t. “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom,” Gerardo Ramirez and Sian L. Beilock, Science (January)–(From the Wall Street Journal (January 22-23, 2011))
The fact that it would actually help students’ grades to write about their anxiety for a full TEN minutes RIGHT BEFORE taking a test completely flies in the face of the standard advice in our culture to “think positive thoughts” and “visualize success.”
While I believe this advice is well-intentioned, what seems to happen is that people start to hate themselves for feeling afraid, or become even more nervous because they are nervous! Attempting to control your own thoughts just causes people to pathologize their own minds.
Many students believe if they hide their fear, it will go away, or at least, no one else will know. In my experience both as a tutor and as as student, this does not work at all. Openly discussing your anxiety–or even just admitting it to yourself–makes it possible to release it. (I used to get totally stressed out about math growing up, and when one of my best friends in high school shared this article with me about math anxiety, it made me so relieved. There was a name for what I struggled with! And I wasn’t alone! Phew!!!)
So this study really resonates with me. A lot of the students who come to work with me have some kind of anxiety about math–and don’t even know that it’s something that happens to other people, too. Part of our work together isn’t just mastering the material, but also openly discussing their fears and how to deal with overwhelming emotions when working on challenging material under pressure. The only way we can work on this stuff is if we talk about it together.
And now, it’s amazing to see that students can get such good results from writing about it on their own at such a crucial moment, right before taking a test.