The study, published last week in Science by researchers at the University of Chicago, tracked test taking performance over 3 different experiments.
In the first experiment, the researchers tracked 20 college students, divided in two groups, one of which was told to write for 10 minutes on how they felt about the test they were about to take, while the other was told to do nothing during that time. Compared to a previous reference test, the students who sat quietly did worse by 12%, while those who wrote about test anxiety improved their scores by 5%.
In the second experiment, the researchers had 47 college students take the same kind of test, but divided the subjects into three groups, where the third group was asked to write about unrelated subjects for 10 minutes. The scores for the students in the non-writing group and in the group writing about unrelated subjects dropped by 7%, while those for the students writing about test anxiety rose by 4%.
The third experiment tracked a total of 105 9th grade high school students, in two groups, one year apart. Six weeks before a final exam, the researchers surveyed students' anxiety levels. Then, right before the exam, they divided the students in two groups, one of which was asked to write for 10 minutes about their feelings about the test, while the other was asked to think quietly about unrelated topics. In the non-writing group, the subjects with the highest anxiety performed worst. However, in the writing group, the subjects with the highest anxiety performed as well as those will low anxiety. The student with low anxiety performed similarly in both groups.
The study conclusion: if you have significant test anxiety, taking 10 minutes to write about your test taking feelings before the test might significantly improve your test results. The study's main author, Professor Sian Beilock, believes that the method clears the subjects' working memory of latent anxiety and allows their brain to work more efficiently.
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Study Abstract in Science