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.