Using expressive writing and reinterpretation of stress to deal with test anxiety: Study from Harris et al.

One of the issues that I struggle with as an instructor is test anxiety—not my own, but my students’. Every semester, I have students talk to me about how their performance on the exam didn’t match their understanding of the biochemistry concepts on the exam. Sometimes our conversation leads me to think they misjudged their understanding, but sometimes I agree with them—their written answers don’t match what they can articulate to me. And often when this happens, the students talk about their test anxiety.

I have a confession to make: I was a weird student. I loved exams. Loved them. I thought they were a really fun way to demonstrate what I knew. I was a hit-and-miss student in other ways; I would put off the reading, I would lose my notes, and I never knew where my syllabus was, but when it was time for an exam, I buckled down, worked hard, and went in expecting a fun time that would result in success. And for the most part, it worked. (This reflection on my college self is fascinating to me as I read about motivation and the role that positive expectancies play in academic success.)

Here’s the thing: I want my students to have this experience too. Or at least, I want them to not dread exams. I therefore keep my eye out for ways to help students with test anxiety.

For years, I’ve been steering my students to expressive writing before exams based on Ramirez and Beilock’s 2011 report. In essence, the authors found that when students wrote for ten minutes about their feelings about a test before taking it, it significantly boosted exam performance. The effect was more pronounced for students who were test anxious, and the intervention eliminated the gap between low- and high-test anxious students.  The authors don’t elaborate a lot on the reasons for the effect, but I think that the writing exercise allows students to eliminate “worry” from the bank of things they need to hold in working memory. They’ve already taken care of it, so they can let it go and therefore free up working memory to focus on the exam.

Although I’ve been telling students about this study for years and advising them to get to class early to use the practice, I haven’t built it in to the structure of the course, partly because ten minutes is a long time. I am therefore really excited about a new paper from Rebecca Harris and colleagues in which they couple a very short (3-minute) expressive writing exercise with another, out-of-class intervention to help students reinterpret anxious feelings. In brief, here’s what they did:

Students in this VERY high enrollment intro biology course do weekly, low stakes online assignments. On the Thursday before each of four exams, this assignment prompted them to reconsider their interpretation of physiological responses associated with stress, encouraging them to reinterpret stress responses as positive feelings that indicate readiness for a challenge. I’ve provided a couple of examples (from the paper’s supplemental materials) as images.

Reappraisal exercise from Exam 1
Reappraisal exercise from Exam 3

I think this is genius, and I regret that I have missed this important work previously (see here and here, for example). Although I think there’s probably more going on here than impacts on motivation, the expectancy-value framework of motivation suggests that physiological effects that we interpret as positive have a beneficial effect on our expectations (which has a beneficial effect on outcomes) and physiological effects we interpret as negative are a cost that reduces overall motivation. So if we can reinterpret our physiological response—change our feeling about what the physiological events mean—it has the potential to improve motivation and thus performance.

Before each exam, students were also prompted to do a short expressive writing exercise (see image, from the supplemental materials for the paper). After writing for three minutes, students were instructed to crumple up the page and throw it away, which is an embodied cognition approach.

In their study, the authors asked several questions about this treatment, using another section of the course as a control (with matched interventions that focused on professional development rather than test anxiety), but to me the take-home message is that they authors saw a significant increase in exam performance. Unlike previous studies, it did not eliminate the effect on test anxiety (that is, test anxiety was still a factor in their final regression model), and it did not impact students’ end-of-semester perception that they were test anxious—but it did provide a 1.06% boost in exam points when compared to the control section.

I am particularly taken with the exercises designed to help students reframe feelings of stress and think this has the potential to be useful in so many settings. I also really love Harris and colleagues’ addition of “crumple it up and throw it away” to the expressive writing exercise, and am delighted to learn that three minutes can have significant impact. In my ongoing quest to make my courses better learning experiences, these are really valuable tools to add to my toolkit.  I’d love to hear other approaches you use.

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