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Press Release 11-007
Writing About Anxiety Helps Students Ace Exams

Research says test performance improves when students write about their worries

Photo of a teacher sitting at a desk , blackboard with the word EXAM, and students taking a test.

The desire to perform well in academics causes some students to perform below their abilities.
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January 13, 2011

Sian Beilock, lead author of a new study that appears today in the journal Science, says writing about test-related worries for ten minutes immediately before taking an exam is an effective way to improve test scores in classroom settings.

"By writing down one's negative thoughts, students may come to realize that the situation is not as bad as they thought or that they are prepared to take it on," said Beilock, an associate professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. "As a result, they worry less during the test."

Her study, "Writing about Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom," was funded by the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Education and Human Resources.

"Understanding performance strategies that help people overcome memory limitations in high-pressure situations is an important goal of this research," said Gregg Solomon, a program director in the directorate's Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings.

"Other researchers have shown that expressive writing can help people decrease worries, but Beilock and her co-author wanted to test the benefits for students in the classroom."

University of Chicago Institute of Education Sciences pre-doctoral fellow Gerardo Ramirez conducted the study with Beilock.

"For many students, the desire to perform their best in academics is high," Beilock and Ramirez wrote in the report. "Yet, despite the fact that students are often motivated to perform their best, the pressure-filled situations in which important tests occur can cause students to perform below their ability instead."

But students who get particularly anxious about tests taking saw their scores on high stakes exams go up nearly one grade point after they wrote about why they feared the test's outcome.

In fact, highly-anxious students who had the opportunity to write down their thoughts before taking a research-study, administered math test received an average grade of B+. Highly anxious students who didn't write down their thoughts received an average grade of B-.

The researchers concluded that the writing exercise provided students an opportunity to unload their anxieties before taking the test and thereby freed up brainpower needed to perform successfully--brainpower that is normally occupied by testing worries.

Beilock, who is also the author of a recently published book about mental logjams called "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To," said the findings of this new research are somewhat counterintuitive. Writing about anxiety before a test, it seems, would cause the worries to crystallize and manifest themselves, not alleviate them.

"But, once you know some of the science behind test anxiety, expressive writing and test performance, it makes sense," she said. 

It has been suggested that writing about one's thoughts and feelings regarding a particular event or situation reduces one's tendency to ponder negative consequences because it allows individuals to reexamine the situation such that the need to worry is decreased.

"If worries use up important thinking and reasoning resources that could otherwise be devoted to exam performance and writing eliminates these worries, then students' performance should improve," said Beilock.

The researchers say this type of writing may help people perform their best in variety of pressure-filled situations--whether it is a big presentation to a client, a speech to an audience, or even a job interview.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Bobbie Mixon, NSF, (703) 292-8485, bmixon@nsf.gov
William Harms, University of Chicago, (773) 702-8356, wharms@uchicago.edu

Program Contacts
Gregg Solomon, NSF, (703) 292-8333, gesolomo@nsf.gov

Principal Investigators
Sian L. Beilock, University of Chicago, (773) 834-3713, beilock@uchicago.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Cover of the January 14, 2011 issue of the journal Science.
The researchers' findings are described in the Jan. 14, 2011 issue of the journal Science.
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