Your entire future depends on this exam. Score high, and you'll get into the college of your dreams. Score low, and … well, it's best not to think about that right now. And yet it's all you can think about. As the clock ticks and those around you scribble hard with their pencils, you stare at the test and your mind goes blank. You're choking.
You might have been better off writing down your feelings first, according to research by psychologists Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago in Illinois. Their study, published online today in Science, shows that students who spend just 10 minutes writing about their worries before a test score higher than those who write about something else or who write nothing. The exercise is especially effective for students who say they habitually choke under pressure.
With rewards such as college admissions and scholarships often dependent on one-shot exams, nervous test-takers are at a distinct disadvantage. "Research has shown that a test is not indicative of a student's ability," says Beilock, who is the author of a book on performance anxiety called Choke. "If we know the science behind test anxiety, we can adapt a short, punchy intervention to help students perform at their potential," he says.
In the study, the researchers asked college students to take a math exam covering material they had never seen before. Then things got even more stressful. The students were given a second exam, but this time they were told that they would receive money if they passed. They were also told that they had a partner who had already done well and who would be let down if they failed, and that they would be videotaped while taking the test so that their teachers and friends could watch.
Before beginning the second test, some students were asked to write about their emotions, and the others were told to sit quietly. The students who aired their anxieties showed an average 5% improvement on the second test, whereas the others broke under pressure and their scores dropped by 12%.
It wasn't just the distraction of writing that assuaged the worried minds. Students who were told to write about a past experience or about the material they thought would be on the test did worse than those who addressed their feelings.
"Writing about their worries allows the students to reexamine the testing situation and reappraise it," Beilock says. "This frees memory resources and increases the ability to focus."
Although it might seem counterproductive to force worriers to focus on their fears, the researchers say that the benefits of expressing emotions on paper are well-documented in trauma victims and depression patients. Education and psychology professor Geoff Cohen of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was not involved in the research, says that the cathartic effect of writing about your emotions is exemplified by blues music. "Putting your thoughts and feelings down has been shown to increase emotional and even physical well-being," he says.
Armed with these data, the researchers took the technique to the field: ninth-grade students taking final exams that could affect their college admissions. Here, too, subjects who wrote about their feelings before the test performed significantly better than those who wrote about another topic, and the students who had previously reported the most test anxiety showed the most improvement.
"The exciting thing is how this study bridges the gap between the lab and the real world," says Art Markman, psychology researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, and editor of the journal Cognitive Science. "To manipulate performance in a controlled lab experiment and then bring it into a natural environment is an important advance," he says.
In the future, Beilock's group plans to study whether expressive writing improves the scores of students from stigmatized groups, such as women in math, who may expect themselves to fail. "It's an easy intervention and doesn't take away from classroom time," she says.