Overcoming exam anxiety

To what extent do you perform at your best under pressure? It is an unfortunate fact for many people that feeling motivated to do well in an exam may actually reduce their performance

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When students have an anxious desire to perform well, they often worry about the situation and its consequences. If these worries take up even a small portion of the processing power – or, to be more psychologically correct, the working memory – of the mind, there are fewer mental resources available for answering questions.

However, researchers have tested many techniques designed to improve people’s test-taking abilities. The good news is that some of these take only minutes to put into practice and can make a measurable difference to people’s performance.

Expressing your emotions

As a psychologist and career coach, I spend a lot of time helping people to do better in their careers. This often involves passing professional exams.

When teaching psychological techniques, I try as far as possible to tell people not only what to do but also why. I believe that explaining the research behind any technique may help people to feel more confident putting it into practice.

One technique that I frequently teach clients was written up in the top scientific journal Science by researchers Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock. Professor Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago is a world authority on learning and high-pressure situations. Her research has been deemed of such importance for students that it is partly funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

In their experiment, the pair of research investigators began by recruiting a group of 47 university students and deliberately putting them into a high-stakes test situation involving two short mathematics tests.

All of the participants were asked to take an initial mathematics test (specifically, a test of Gauss’s modular arithmetic). The participants were simply told to 'do their best.'

Next, the research duo put more pressure on the participants in preparation for a second test. The researchers told the participants that there would be a monetary prize for doing well on the second test.

However, the prize would be awarded for team performance. Individuals would work in groups of two and the prize would only be awarded if both individuals performed well. All of the 20 participants were told that their partners had already completed the test and scored highly. Therefore the award of the monetary prize would only be awarded if the participants did well too.

Immediately before this second test, the researchers divided the participants into three groups as follows:

  • A control group – these participants sat quietly for 10 minutes.
  • An expressive writing group – this second group was asked to spend 10 minutes writing as openly as possible about their thoughts and feelings regarding the upcoming mathematics problems.
  • An unrelated writing group – the third group was asked to spend 10 minutes writing about an unconnected, unemotional event of the participants’ choosing.


Following one of the three experimental interventions, all of the participants then took the second exam. On analysing the results of the experiment, the researchers found that those participants who first sat quietly for 10 minutes actually performed seven percent worse in the second test. The added pressure had significantly impaired their test performance.

However, the participants who wrote about their thoughts and feelings performed four percent better than they had done initially. It’s not a huge boost, but even the slightest improvement in performance is better than the seven percent drop that the 'sitting quietly' group experienced.

Importantly, the third group – who had written about an unrelated, neutral event – also experienced a drop in their performance of seven percent. The inclusion of this group in the experiment shows that the mere act of writing was not enough to improve test performance. It was writing specifically about thoughts and feelings that boosted test performance.

Conclusion

What do you tend to do in the minutes just before an exam? Most students sit quietly, perhaps thinking about likely questions or how they might perform. However, this study unequivocally shows that sitting quietly before a high-pressure exam may be a very poor use of time.

The research is clear: engaging in expressive writing prior to an exam leads to a measurable boost to people’s performance. The technique may improve test scores by reducing the intrusive thoughts and worries that students experience during the test. In the experiment, writing about thoughts and feelings not only prevented a seven percent drop in performance but also improved performance by a further four percent. That could well be the difference between a pass and a fail.

So consider writing about your thoughts and feelings for 10 minutes prior to your next exam. Particularly if you are someone who is habitually anxious about taking tests, writing about your worries may help to not only alleviate anxiety but also boost your performance.

"Engaging in expressive writing prior to an exam leads to a measurable boost to people’s performance. The technique may improve test scores by reducing the intrusive thoughts and worries that students experience during the test"