You know the material. You study for hours. You get your parents, or your spouse, or your friends to run through a practice test, or two, or three. You do deep breathing, or yoga, or weight lifting, or fruit juices. But no matter what you do to prepare, when you get into the test setting - whatever exam it may be - anxiety takes over. You try, you struggle, but you don't do well or, at least, as well as you should. Again. And again.
The costs may be great - advancement to the next grade, scholarship consideration, law school or medical school, that job you want. The problem appears insurmountable. But sometimes very big problems may have simple, uncomplicated solutions.
According to a new study that appeared last week in the journal Science, the way to get over test-anxiety is simply by writing about your worries.
By writing down one's negative thoughts, students may come to realize that the situation is not as bad as they thought or that they are prepared to take it on, said Sian Beilock, an associate professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. As a result, they worry less during the test.
Beilock, lead author of the study, said writing about test-related worries for ten minutes immediately before taking an exam , is an effective way to improve test scores.
Her study, Writing about Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom, was funded by the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Education and Human Resources.
Understanding performance strategies that help people overcome memory limitations in high-pressure situations is an important goal of this research, said Gregg Solomon, a program director in the directorate's Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings.
Other researchers have shown that expressive writing can help people decrease worries, but Beilock and her co-author wanted to test the benefits for students in the classroom., Solomon said.
University of Chicago pre-doctoral fellow Gerardo Ramirez conducted the study with Beilock.
For many students, the desire to perform their best in academics is high, Beilock and Ramirez wrote in the report. Yet, despite the fact that students are often motivated to perform their best, the pressure-filled situations in which important tests occur can cause students to perform below their ability instead.
But students who get particularly anxious about tests taking saw their scores on high stakes exams go up nearly one grade point after they wrote about why they feared the test's outcome.
Highly anxious students who had the opportunity to write down their thoughts before taking an administered math test for the Beilock/Ramirez study received an average grade of B+. Highly anxious students who didn't write down their thoughts received an average grade of B-.
The researchers concluded that the writing exercise provided students an opportunity to unload their anxieties before taking the test and thereby freed up brain power needed to perform successfully-brain power that is normally occupied by testing worries.
Beilock -- also the author of a recently published book about mental logjams called Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To -- said the findings of this new research are somewhat counterintuitive.
Writing about anxiety before a test, it seems, would cause the worries to crystallize and manifest themselves, not alleviate them.
But, once you know some of the science behind test anxiety, expressive writing and test performance, it makes sense, she said.
It has been suggested that writing about one's thoughts and feelings regarding a particular event or situation reduces one's tendency to ponder negative consequences because it allows individuals to reexamine the situation, so that the need to worry decreases.
If worries use up important thinking and reasoning resources that could otherwise be devoted to exam performance and writing eliminates these worries, then students' performance should improve, Beilock said.
The researchers say this type of writing may help people perform their best in variety of pressure-filled situations--whether it is a big presentation to a client, a speech to an audience, or even a job interview.