Skip to main content

Many students "choke" under exam-time pressure. They become so worried about doing badly that they are unable to perform to the best of their abilities.

But a new study suggests that students can overcome their nervousness – and actually get better grades – if they spend 10 minutes immediately before the examination writing about their fears. It's as though the writing exercise helps them unload their angst so they can focus all their attention on the test.

"We showed that students who are normally test-anxious were able to perform just as well as their other classmates," said the senior author of the study, Sian Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Story continues below advertisement

For the study, the researchers recruited 20 university students who were given a series of math tests in the lab as well as in a real classroom setting. In the central experiment, the students were divided into three groups. One was asked to write about their feelings concerning the upcoming test; the second was instructed to write about events of the previous day and the third group was told to sit back and relax in the 10 minutes before the start of the exam.

The overall findings, being published Friday in the journal Science, revealed that students prone to jitters did 10 to 15 per cent better when given the opportunity to write about their feelings prior to the test.

The researchers repeated the experiments with high-school students and got very similar results. The writing task boosted the grade of extremely anxious students from an average of B– to B+.

But how could such a simple pre-test task make such a big difference?

According to Dr. Beilock, pressured-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain's processing power known as working memory.

"You can think of it as a mental scratch pad that allows us to work with whatever information we have held in [our]onsciousness," she explained. "And when people are worrying, they don't have as much of this cognitive horse power to devote to the test."

By writing about their fears, "it allows the students to almost get rid of their worries ahead of time," she said. Indeed, an assessment of what they wrote indicated that many students gained some insight into their fears and actually began to down play the overall importance of the test. Essentially, they could mentally relax a little.

Story continues below advertisement

"How students score on a test is not necessarily indicative of their ability," said Dr. Beilock. "We think we have come up with a good technique that will allow students to perform at their best. It doesn't take a lot of time. It doesn't take a lot of money and it's something students can do on their own."

Dr. Beilock is a leading expert on performing under pressure and is author of the book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To.

She believes the writing exercise tested on the students could also help others do their best in a variety of high-pressure situations, "whether it is a big presentation to a client, a speech to an audience or even a job interview."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

If your comment doesn't appear immediately it has been sent to a member of our moderation team for review

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.