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Sara Reardon, in Science Now, writes about a study at the University of Chicago which shows that students who spend just ten minutes writing about their worries before a test score higher than those who write about nothing or about something else.
Research by psychologists Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock, published today in the journal Science, faced student subjects with extremely stressful test situations.
First, the students took a math exam covering material they had never before seen.
They then had to take a second test, in which they would receive money if they passed. At this point, they were also told that they had a partner who had already done well, and who would be let down if they failed.
And — they would be videotaped while taking the test so that their teachers and friends could watch.
Some students were asked to write about their emotions before they took the second test. Others were told to sit quietly.
Students who aired their anxieties showed an average 5% improvement on the second test.
The others, who had not written about their feelings, “broke under pressure,” writes Reardon. Their scores dropped by 12%.
Researchers found that it wasn’t just the distraction of writing that helped. When students were told to write about, for example, a past experience or about what they thought might be on the test, they also did worse than those who addressed their feelings.
Says researcher Beilock, who is the author of Choke, a book on performance anxiety, “Research has shown that a test is not indicative of a student’s ability. If we know the science behind test anxiety, we can adapt a short, punchy intervention to help students perform at their potential.”
About this study she says “Writing about their worries allows the students to reexamine the testing situation and reappraise it. This frees memory resources and increases the ability to focus.”
Researchers admit that it might seem counterproductive to force worriers to focus on their fears. But they say that it is well documented that when trauma victims and depression patients express emotions on paper, benefits are demonstrated.
Education and psychology professor Geoff Cohen of Stanford University (who was not involved in the research) feels 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.”
The data inspired researchers at Chicago to “take the technique to the field.” Ninth-grade students taking final exams that could affect their college admissions became their subjects this time.
As in the previous study, students who wrote about their feelings before the test performed significantly better than those who wrote about another topic.
In addition, students who had previously reported the most test anxiety showed the most improvement.
Art Markman is a psychology researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, and is editor of the journal Cognitive Science. He says, “The exciting thing is how this study bridges the gap between the lab and the world. To manipulate performance in a controlled lab experiment and then bring it into a natural environment is an important advance.”
Beilock’s group plans to study whether or not expressive writing improves the scores of students from certain stigmatized groups — women who are expected to do less well in math, for example.
“It’s an easy intervention and doesn’t take away from classroom time.”
source: Sara Reardon’s 1/13/11 article at http://www.news.sciencemag.org.
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