Stand the test of mind

Writing down your anxieties before a big exam can mean a better grade, suggests new research from UChicago.

Tetchy testers take note: for students who get anxious about high-pressure tests, simply writing out their fears the night before can boost their grades by five percent, according to a study published in the January 14 Science.

Associate professor of psychology Sian Beilock, the study's coauthor, is an expert on "choking under pressure," the subject of her recent book. Gerardo Ramirez, the study's other author, is a graduate student of Beilock's. Both work in the Department of Psychology and the Committee on Education.

In the study, students who were asked to write their thoughts about the test for ten minutes the night beforehand did better than students who did not write (one control group was asked to sit quietly for ten minutes) or who wrote about unrelated thoughts. Anxious students who wrote about their fears averaged a B+ in one case, while the control group averaged a B-.

The technique is adapted from one used in treating depression, the article says, explaining that for depressed individuals, a few months of writing about a traumatic or fraught experience can unburden them, or, to use the technical term, "decrease rumination."

The theory with depression holds that anxiety and short-term performance both take place in the "working memory" part of the brain, and that anxiety disrupts the brain's focus. Writing about depression may reframe the emotional experience in a way that helps sufferers put it out of mind, and Beilock and Ramirez hypothesized that same logic might apply for chronically nervy test takers.

"This is a somewhat counterintuitive idea given that drawing attention to negative information typically makes it more rather than less salient in memory," they wrote. "However, if expressive writing helps to reduce rumination, then it should benefit high-stakes test performance, especially for students who tend to worry in testing situations."

The results of the study—which haven't yet been confirmed through repeat experiments—did garner attention in the media this past week: Chicago Tribune, LA Times, Toronto Star, BusinessWeek, Time, and CNN picked up on the story.

Now if only Beilock and Ramirez would study how to get rid of my thesis- and blog-post writing jitters.

Asher Klein, '11

Photo via iStockphoto

January 24, 2011