Friday, January 21, 2011

Writing about worries can ease exam anxiety

Here's another simple research finding, published recently in Science by Sian Beilock:  students who spent ten minutes--immediately before a test--writing down their thoughts about what was causing them fear, performed substantially better on the test.

I'll have to review this paper in more detail to comment further, but I think it is another simple anxiety-management tactic for exam or performance preparation.  A frantic review or a frantic bout of anxious rumination right before an exam is unlikely to help -- an anxiety-management exercise such as expressive writing is very much more likely to help, and a study like this is strong evidence of this.

The article shows that the effective action was specifically to write about negative thoughts and feelings during the ten minutes before the beginning of a stressful exam.  A control activity--of writing about anything that comes to mind--was not effective.   So the effectiveness of this technique was not simply due to distraction. 

I would be interested to see the authors' opinions and/or research about whether specific journaling techniques could work particularly well, or less well, in various anxiety scenarios.  Sometimes, purely "negative" journaling can end up being a somewhat ruminative activity which entrenches negative emotional states and attitudes (e.g. one can get worked up in a cynical, pessimistic rant, which could increase or magnify one's following cynicism or pessimism, or increase one's filtered attention to negative events in the day).
See the following references:
   A "balanced" journaling style, which includes room for free discussion of thoughts and feelings, but also room for positively-focused or constructive discussion may prevent this risk of snowballing rumination or negativity from a journaling activity.   One simple aspect of this experiment was that the journaling was immediately before a performance, and was very time-limited (10 minutes); these factors may reduce the potential for the journaling to be a negative or ruminative behaviour, and may increase the chance of the activity serving to process anxious emotion effectively.


Anonymous said...

On a similar note... this technique is used to diminish the effects of stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat is a documented response (Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson) where individuals from a stereotyped group, feel threatened when they believe that their performance will identify them as examples of their group's negative stereotype.

An example would be: Girls being told at the beginning of a hard calculus test that boys will do better and subsequently the girls do worse than if nothing was said at all.

Some really interesting studies were done to show the effects of stereotype threat in gender domains and ethnic domains.

Here are a few summaries of their findings:
(these are not the original research papers but a fairly good summary... if you want the research paper to search the authors.)


The theory behind why this happens explains it using cognitive load. When an individual identifies with the negatively stereotyped group, there is an activation of their schema, and subsequent anxiety arising from the possibility of representing the negative stereotype. This anxiety increases the cognitive load of the individual and therefore they have less cognitive energy to allocate toward the task at hand.

(This explanation of cognitive load could be extrapolated to test anxiety in general.)


The way to nullify stereotype threats include:

1) Suggesting that both genders or ethnicities perform equally well.

2) Discussing and acknowledging the existence or stereotype threat

3) Provide examples of counter stereotype individuals thereby decreasing the power of a stereotype.

Therefore the findings make intuitive sense.

I have heard of some alternative ways to decrease test anxiety in general but I will have to check sources.

GK said...

Thanks for that detailed expansion on the subject!

Anonymous said...

I came across this website yesterday and thought it was really neat.

The handouts are pretty good.

I was very surprised that my university experience never taught me HOW to learn, or what different techniques there are...etc.