You’re sitting in the back row and sweating all over the place. Your palms are clammy, your heart is beating fast and you’ve got trouble concentrating. It doesn’t matter that you’ve spent the past 24 hours pouring over your books, notes and old homework assignments. The fact of the matter is that this test is worth half of your grade, and you’re not exactly the world’s greatest test-taker. So what do you do?
Spend 10 minutes before the test writing about your fear.
Wait a minute, what? You want me to focus all of my attentions on the fact that I’m about to take one of the most important tests in my life, my history of poor tests, my already failing grade in the class and my scholarship potentially hanging in the balance?
Yup. According to a new paper just published in Science magazine by Sian Beilock, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago, taking some time to free write about your fear is the perfect way to make it go away.
You see, worrying competes for something called working memory, a short-term memory system involved in the control and regulation of a limited amount of information immediately relevant to the task at hand. And since the supply is limited, the more you worry, the less you working memory you have available to dedicate to actually taking the test. And for whatever reason, writing about the anxiety seems to lift the burden by reevaluating the stress in a way that might reduce the impulse to worry at all.
Beilock and his team made this discovery by inviting 20 college students to take a math test. Known as the Gauss’s modular arithmetic, the system of arithmetic resets itself after so many numbers like the face of a clock. It uses common mathematics that everyone knows, but since most people have little practice with it, it is a good common denominator to test.
During the first test, the students were simply told to do the best they could. But before a second attempt, the pressure was put on them. They were told that a randomly assigned partner and the student in question could earn money if they both performed better on the second test than the first. What’s more, they were told that their “partner” already had lived up to their end of the deal, putting the outcome completely on the subject’s shoulders. And for those who hate being watched, each student also was told that the session was being taped and that their performance was being evaluated by Big Brother.
Then, just before taking the test, half of the students were asked to write freely about the upcoming test and their feelings about it while the other half were not. And sure enough, the pressure worked. The students that just took the test choked and saw their test scores fall 12 percent. However, those that did the writing exercise actually improved by five percent.
But what if it’s just the relaxing art of writing that made them improve, you ask? Well, Beilock thought of that too. In a second experiment, Sian added another group that wrote about whatever they wanted for 10 minutes, except the test. And those students joined those who did not write at all, for a combined drop of seven percent while those writing about the test again improved, this time by four percent.
But what about in the real world, you ask? Again, Belock thought of that. The researchers next hit a 9th grade biology class before their first final high-school exam, which is pressure-packed because year-end grades often serve as the first data point in averages used for college admissions. Before taking the test, each student found an envelope on their desk asking them to write about their fears relating to test or about any other topic other than the test.
Once again, those who did the writing exercise about the test scored better. However, it didn’t help everyone.
Six weeks before the exam, the researchers had the students complete a survey designed to measure how prone they are to anxiety and worrying. Those fortunate calm souls who don’t fret over tests weren’t really affected by the writing exercise. But it evened the playing field for those with a predisposition to worrying and greatly helped their outcomes.
So if you’re a good test taker and don’t worry about doing poorly, ignore everything you just read. But if you’re one of those who often bomb tests because you’re too busy worried about the consequences, try writing out your fears before going to class. And if you’re a teacher, you might want to consider trying the technique on your class sometime in order to give everyone a better shot at success.