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Writing about anxiety may boost test scores
January 13th, 2011
02:00 PM ET

Writing about anxiety may boost test scores

You probably remember it all too well: clenching your teeth as the teacher handed out the final exam, worrying about what curve-ball problems might appear and how your score would affect your GPA.

It's as if your brain is a computer running too many programs at once, says Sian Beilock, associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. Stressing about the consequences of your score uses up valuable thinking and resources in your brain, and can actually make you perform worse when you actually start taking the test.

It turns out that writing about these anxieties right before the test may boost a grade. A new study in the journal Science suggests that high school and college students may significantly benefit from putting their worries on paper before taking an exam.

"How students perform on a test isn’t necessarily indicative of true ability," said Beilock, senior author of the study. If students have the opportunity to reexamine the situation by expressing their thoughts, it may seem better than they originally thought, she said, and such anxieties are less likely to pop up during the test itself.

The study consisted of four experiments, two in the laboratory with college students and two in real-life biology classrooms with 9th graders.

With the college students, Beilock and colleagues compared the performance on a math test of students asked to write about their anxieties against those told to sit quietly during that time. All participants had stress on the second test of the experiments because they were told they would receive money if they did well, and that others were counting on them. Researchers also told the students they were being videotaped and that math teachers would review the work.

It turned out that participants who did not write about their stress had scores that dropped 12%, on average, from the first to second math test, whereas the students who wrote about their thoughts improved 5% on average. Researchers observed a similar pattern when comparing participants doing the expressive writing with those writing about other topics.

The concept worked in real-life settings, too. Ninth-graders taking a biology final exam took an initial assessment of anxiety about the test beforehand. Those highest in anxiety had an average grade of B- on the test if they did not do the expressive writing; those who did averaged B+. This effect was shown on two different occasions with different students.

The intervention studied here doesn't require a lot of time, money or resources from schools; in fact, students could just do it on their own time, she said. And it has all sorts of applications outside the classroom - preparing for job interviews, speeches and big sports games, to name a few, Beilock said.

"This sort of writing might be beneficial in other activities, from the boardroom to the classroom to the playing field," said

Next steps in this line of research include testing the idea on younger students, and looking at what effect the expressive writing has on brain activity.


soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. V Saxena

    Very cool study! *pulls out notebook and starts writing in preparation of upcoming STD test, lol (j/k)*

    January 13, 2011 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. MashaSobaka

    Writing about your anxieties and stresses helps in just about every area of life. Catharsis in action, people. It’s a beautiful thing. …Sorta.

    January 13, 2011 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Mark Fontaine

    Stress is a part of life. Our bodies are designed to produce stress and respond to it. It is a way our biology
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    January 13, 2011 at 20:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Seetheway

    Getting a b- verses a b+ in nothing! What's the big deal. If a b+ verses a D then yes you gotten too stressed!

    January 13, 2011 at 21:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • David

      Okay- again, and slower this time.

      "Getting a B- versus a B+ is nothing! What's the big deal? If it's a B+ versus a D, then yes, you have gotten too stressed."

      I fully expected an idiot to make an idiotic response to this. It's obvious that YOU don't care, but this is useful info.

      January 13, 2011 at 22:23 | Report abuse |
  5. Laura F

    You know, after a lifetime of test anxiety, it's nice to know that something as simple as writing about your feelings can have such an effect on test performance. Given how much stress today's students are under to outperform one another, they need all the help that they can get.

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    January 13, 2011 at 22:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cindy

      It's funny but I returned to college a year ago after a 30 year break. Life had given me knowledge that was not present in the past but, the one thing that had not changed in all those years is the complete panic attack I have right before taking a exam. I actually shake and find it hard to breath or even swallow. I never have a problem with a pop quiz, always aced them. I receive A's on all the other work but, my exam scores usually bring my overall letter grade down by one. I have tried this method at the end of last semester; although I did not get an A on the test I did get 15 points higher than on previous exams

      January 14, 2011 at 10:13 | Report abuse |
  6. Shan

    I've known for years that journaling is a great way to work through problems and issues. I nearly always feel better afterward.

    January 14, 2011 at 09:45 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Interesting test! While mild worry and stress can be healthy coping mechanisms that enable teens to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life, constant worrying can be a sign of a bigger problem. If your teen is worrying for no apparent reason, or if anxiety is affecting their quality of life, an anxiety disorder may be the cause.

    Here are a few symptoms of anxiety disorders in teens:

    * Excessive, persistent worry and tension
    * Restlessness or irritability
    * Physical complaints such as muscle tension, headaches, nausea, exhaustion, trembling or sweating
    * Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
    * Being easily startled
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.