The write stuff for test anxiety

Anxious students who wrote about their worries before taking a test improved by nearly a full grade, according to a University of Chicago study published in Science, reports e-Science News.

The writing exercise allowed students to unload their anxieties before taking the test and accordingly freed up brainpower needed to complete the test successfully — brainpower that is normally occupied by testing worries, explained the study’s senior author, Sian Beilock, an associate professor in psychology at the University.

Worrying takes up “working memory” space needed to excel, Beilock theorizes.

In one set of experiments, ninth-grade biology students taking the first final exam of their high school career were given envelopes with directions to either write about their feelings on the test, or to think about topics that wouldn’t be on the test.

. . .  for students given the opportunity to write before the exam, those highest in test anxiety performed just as well as their less anxious classmates. “Writing about your worries for 10 minutes before an upcoming exam leveled the playing field such that those students who usually get most anxious during exams were able to overcome their fears and perform up to their potential,” Beilock said.

Indeed, students highly anxious about taking tests who wrote down their thoughts before the test received an average grade of B+, compared with the highly anxious students who didn’t write, who received an average grade of B-.

Beilock’s book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, explains how to perform well under pressure.

About Joanne


  1. Thanks for this interesting post, Joanne. I hadn’t seen this research before. As you know, there’s been much discussion over the past several years about the importance of practice (e.g. K.A. Ericsson and M. Gladwell). The research you posted about adds a psychological component to the discussion. Yes, deliberate practice of academic skills is important, but students also need to prepare their minds/psyches to perform well when it matters most. Given, one could argue this conclusion is intuitive but having a specific method (e.g. writing anxieties down) to recommend to students is very helpful.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Seems intuitive, I suppose, but there’s something fishy about telling one group to think about the exam they are about to take and telling the other to think about something else.

    You should have the “control” group, such as it is, do something related to the exam but not to their anxiety therefrom.

  3. Darn. Finals week was *last* week!

  4. In sports psych, the idea is that you visualize how you will overcome the anxieties before you head into the competition. Jane Savoie has a web site about this — she’s specific to dressage, but it works for everything. I hadn’t connected it to the kids, but maybe I’ll do some visualization with them before the AP exam. I’ve found it very helpful in my riding.

  5. Diana Senechal says:

    Building on Michael’s point, I suggest a few experiments:

    Have one group write about anxieties about the test, and have the other group just think about those anxieties.

    Have one group write about anxieties about the test, and have the other group write about something else entirely.

    Have one group write about anxieties about the test, and have the other group write about something else related to the test.

    Etc. There are too many variables in this.

  6. I just want to know if there are any doctors med students or residents who received average verbal scores on their SATS.