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.
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.
"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."