But a new study published in Science suggests that taking a few minutes to write about your worries can alleviate anxiety’s negative effects on your performance. Expressive writing is already known to be therapeutic for individuals having trouble getting over a traumatic experience. Thus it seems reasonable that writing about feelings could help with other types of stresses too – at least, this was the hypothesis of researchers Ramirez and Bellock at the University of Chicago.
These researchers wanted to see if writing about worries could help anxious high school students perform better on exams. With the cooperation of teachers, the researchers were able to run a few “experiments” on freshmen.
Experiment 1. Students were set up to have test anxiety about an upcoming math exam by giving them both a monetary incentive and social pressure. The lure of prize money for good scores could give students the same nervous feelings they might have in real life, when a college scholarship would depend on grades. Artificial social pressure was produced by assigning students partners and telling them that both partners had to perform well for either one to get the prize money. Shortly before the exam, each student was told that their partner had already taken the exam and passed with flying colors, so now it was all up to them.
The students sat down for their exam, but one group of students was asked to first take 10 minutes to write openly about their thoughts and feelings regarding the imminent exam. The other group was asked to just sit quietly for 10 minutes.
The students that had twiddled their thumbs for 10 minutes scored significantly worse (12%) on the high-stakes exam than they had in an earlier no-pressure pre-test – they choked under pressure. However, the students that had written about their anxieties performed better than they had on the pre-test, by 5% on average.
Experiment 2. OK, so writing about feelings seems to be beneficial before an exam, but what if you write about baby elephants instead? Well it turns out that doesn’t help – the writing has to be about your feelings of stress. The researchers performed a control experiment by having a group of students write about an irrelevant, non-emotional topic for 10 minutes before taking their high-stakes math exam. Those students performed just as poorly as the students that didn’t do any writing at all.
Experiment 3. Lastly, the researchers were curious if this writing exercise helped some students more than others. It would make sense for the writing to be most therapeutic for the students that regularly feel test anxiety, and less important for students that don’t really get nervous anyway.
The researchers did the same sort of experiment again, but this time in a real-life scenario with a new batch of students. It was the final exam in a freshman biology class, so students were bound to be nervous. Some were asked to write about their feelings at the start of the exam, others were asked to write about something irrelevant. The high school teachers gave the researchers access to the students’ scores on earlier midterm exams, and also the results of a questionnaire they’d filled out many weeks prior about their tendency to get test anxiety. The researchers compared the students’ final exam scores to their midterm scores and their self-reported tendency toward anxiety.
Sure enough, the students most prone to test anxiety benefited the most from the expressive writing exercise. These students were able to perform on par with the students that weren’t prone to test anxiety (B+ average), simply by writing about their anxiety for 10 minutes prior to the exam. On the other hand, if the anxious students wrote about an irrelevant topic, they performed much worse (B- average).
Conclusions. Writing about your worries right before taking a stressful exam can help you perform to your full potential. Schools might benefit from assigning students this anxiety-intervention writing exercise before exams.
So what about those of us that are past the exam-taking stage of our lives? Would a writing exercise be useful to new teachers about to give their first lecture? Could expressive writing help before pitching a baseball game or having a scary “relationship talk”? Tough to say from this research, but I think I might try writing about my nerves next time I have to give a powerpoint presentation at a conference.
Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. (2011). Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom Science, 331 (6014), 211-213 DOI: 10.1126/science.1199427