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Less Test Anxiety and Improved Exam Scores in 10 Minutes

Certifications and the tests that accompany them can be stressful. If there was a quick, ethical way of increasing your test scores while reducing anxiety would you take it? – You should do!

Test HorrorResearch into test anxiety, its impact on test performance, and strategies for intervention that were published in Science, 2011 offer some valuable tools for boosting performance.  It turns out there is a 10 minute exercise that has been found to significantly boost performance. Here is an excerpt from the research paper:

 “Two laboratory and two randomized field experiments tested a writing intervention exercise designed to improve students’ scores on high stakes exams… The intervention, a brief expressive writing assignment that occurred immediately before taking an important test, significantly improved student exam scores, especially for students habitually anxious about test taking. Simply writing about one’s worries before a high-stakes exam can boost test scores”. So, especially if you get nervous about important exams, this is a great tool for improving performance.

Returning to the Science paper: “Studies have shown that when students feel an anxious desire to perform at a high level they worry about the situation and its consequences. These worries compete for Working Memory (WM) available for performance. WM is a short term memory system involved in the control and regulation of a limited amount of information immediately relevant to the task at hand. If the ability of WM to maintain task focus is disrupted because of situation-related worries, performance can suffer. Writing may alleviate the burden that worry places on WM therefore improving performance." 

This is a somewhat counterintuitive idea given that drawing attention to negative information typically makes it more rather than less salient in memory. However in the experiments, ninth grade students were randomly assigned to an expressive writing or control condition immediately before the final exam of their high school career. Students spent 10 minutes either sitting quietly (control group) or engaged in expressive writing. The expressive writing group were asked to write as openly as possible about their thoughts and feelings regarding the exam they were about to perform. 

Control participants choked under the increased pressure, scoring  on average 12% lower than earlier test scores; whereas students who expressed their thoughts before the high pressure exam showed a significant 5% improvement on their pre-test scores.

This is a great improvement, from -12% to +5% under stressful conditions. The researches wondered if writing, regardless of content, distracted students’ attention from the situation and thus benefited performance. So they did another experiment where one group was asked to write about anything they liked and the other group did the same expressive writing about the consequences of the exam. In this experiment the unrelated writing group showed a 7% drop in performance from pre test to final test, whereas the expressive writing group showed a 4% increase in performance this time.

So, it is not just writing that does the trick, making a shopping list or drafting your project’s next status report is not going to help you. You have to actually think and write openly about the exam. How do you feel about it? What would happen if you fail? Who would you need to tell? How would people react at work? All the gritty stuff we may be telling ourselves not to think about, that’s exactly what we should be writing about to free up as much working memory as possible.

It seems Working Memory capacity is key for answering questions and is eroded by anxiety. Exercises like 10 minutes of expressive writing could be very useful tools for improving performance. Facing your fears and documenting them will unload them from Working Memory giving you more to solve problems with.

Test are bad enough, but if you are one of the 40% of people that suffer from test anxiety, that panic of “Argg, I have forgotten it all!” this 10 minute exercise could be just the ticket. You should be arriving at the test center in plenty of time anyway, just in case there is traffic or delays. So use that wait time effectively to your advantage.

Note: This article first appeared on here. Bio: Mike Griffiths is the author of “PMI-ACP Exam Prep, Premier Edition: A Course in a Book for Passing the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) Exam” and enjoys helping people understand and pass project management certifications.


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