January 28, 2011

Choke author adds a new twist to test prep

Psychology professor Sian Beilock has something to say for students preparing for midterms: Forget all-nighters in the Reg. Students who want to ace tests should grab a journal and get in touch with their feelings instead.

In a new study, Beilock and fourth-year graduate student Gerardo Ramirez found that just ten minutes of written reflection can ease test anxiety and yield better results.

The research, first published in Science on January 14, found that expressive writing or reflecting on fears related to an upcoming exam eases stress and can raise results by an entire grade point. Students in the test group averaged a B, while the control group averaged a B-.

“What students show on a test is not necessarily indicative of their ability,” Beilock said. Instead, test anxiety inhibits students from recalling key materials and can have a huge effect on the results, with a 12-percent accuracy drop in the control group.

The research, which began three years ago, first examined how written expression would affect college students taking a math test in a high-stress environment. The researchers also tested 9th-grade students, finding similar results.

Participants who wrote about their fears prior to the math test increased accuracy by five percent, according to the research. The researchers also found that reflecting on an unrelated topic did not improve test performance.

Just in time for midterms, Ramirez and Beilock agreed that the findings are especially applicable to the average U of C student. “I’d definitely advise [University students] to give it a try,” Ramirez said.

"Ideally, [students] should write more than ten minutes if they can.” However, according to Ramirez, even 10 minutes of reflection can have beneficial results on exams.

Following the publication of the article, titled “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom,” the study has since been featured in other publications, including The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, and the Los Angeles Times.

“I think it’s exciting that we’re able to get our work out on a large audience,” Beilock said. She noted that test anxiety has universal appeal, since it doesn’t just affect students.

Beilock studied similar high-pressure situations in Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. The book also covers test anxiety and explores the performance pressures in business and athletics.

Ramirez was at first surprised by interview requests and the media attention. “Obviously, after publishing the work, it dawned on me that people would find this very important,” he said. “It’s a very simple intervention.”

“We’re still thinking up potential follow-ups,” said Ramirez, who plans to continue his research into test anxiety. In particular, the researchers plan to evaluate the “specific mechanism from which people benefit from the writing” beginning this year.