Preparing for College

Express Your Test Anxiety for Better Math

Confession may be not only good for your soul but also for your performance on math tests. Yes, researchers have penetrated yet another mysterious stronghold of the human psyche and discovered that students who took the time to articulate their test anxiety fears in writing did better on a following math test. This is almost like going on Oprah and admitting that your new book was completely plagiarized and then having it become a best seller. Well, maybe not exactly that dramatic.

I have to wonder if this exercise also applies to other areas of both academic and personal life. Could we do better on the SAT if we wrote a few well considered paragraphs addressing our SAT fears? Maybe we could even extend that concept to dating or learning to drive a car. Who knows? My personal view is that this process releases pent-up emotions that, when pressed down inside us, inhibit our "smart" juices from flowing. It's kind of like eliminating a bottleneck or a kink in a hose. Damn the test anxieties, full success ahead!

Well, whatever revelations lurk in the hearts of researchers, here's the scoop from the Washington Post on journaling your text fears.

Students who wrote about anxiety over math test did better than others in study

Got worries about a test? Write them off.

Your entire future depends on this exam. Score high, and you'll get into the college of your dreams. Score low, and . . . well, it's best not to think about that right now. And yet it's all you can think about. Your mind goes blank. You're choking.

You might have been better off writing down your feelings first, according to research by psychologists Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago. Their study, published online this month in Science, shows that students who spend just 10 minutes writing about their worries before a test score higher than those who write about something else or who write nothing.

With rewards such as college admissions and scholarships riding on one-shot exams, nervous test-takers are at a distinct disadvantage, says Beilock, the author of "Choke," a book about performance anxiety. "If we know the science behind test anxiety, we can adapt a short, punchy intervention to help students perform at their potential," he says.

In the study, the researchers asked college students to take a math exam covering material they had never seen. The students then were given a second exam and told that they would receive money if they passed. They were also told that they had a partner who had already done well and who would be let down if they failed, and that they would be videotaped while taking the test so that their teachers and friends could watch.

Before the second test, some students were asked to write about their emotions, and the others were told to sit quietly. The students who aired their anxieties showed an average 5 percent improvement on the second test; the others appeared to feel the pressure, and their scores dropped by 12 percent.

Apparently, it wasn't just the distraction of writing that helped. Students who were told to write about a past experience or about the material they thought would be on the test did worse than those who addressed their feelings.

Armed with these data, the researchers took the technique to the field: ninth-grade students taking final exams that could affect their college admissions. Here, too, participants who wrote about their feelings before the test performed significantly better than those who wrote about another topic. The students who had previously reported the most test anxiety showed the most improvement.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.