As any parent or teacher knows, tests can create crippling anxiety in students–and anxious kids can perform below their true abilities. But new research in cognitive science and psychology is giving us a clearer understanding of the link between stress and performance, and allowing experts to develop specific strategies for helping kids manage their fears. These potential solutions are reasonably simple, inexpensive and, as recent studies show, effective. Some work for a broad range of students, while others target specific groups. Yet they’re unfamiliar to many teachers and parents, who remain unaware that test anxiety can be so easily relieved. Here, three such approaches:
1. UNLOAD ON PAPER.
When students feel nervous, their capacity to think clearly and solve problems accurately is reduced, says Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago. Students taking an exam must draw on their working memory, the mental holding space where we manipulate facts and ideas. “When students are anxious, their worries use up some of their working memory, leaving fewer cognitive resources to devote to the test,” Beilock explains. One method recently tested successfully by Beilock and a colleague, Gerardo Ramirez, had students spend ten minutes writing about their thoughts and feelings immediately before taking a test. The practice, called “expressive writing,” is used by psychologists to reduce negative thoughts in people with depression. They tried the intervention on college students placed in a testing situation in Beilock’s lab, and in an actual Chicago school, where ninth-grade students engaged in the writing exercise before their first high school final. In both cases, students’ test scores “significantly improved,” according to an article they published last year in the journal Science.
While one might imagine writing about a looming exam would only heighten students’ anxiety, Beilock says the opposite was the case. “Writing about their worries had the effect of ‘offloading’ them onto the page, so that the students had more cognitive horsepower available to apply to solving problems on the test,” she explains. For both groups, Beilock and Ramirez reported in Science, “one short writing intervention that brings testing pressures to the forefront enhances the likelihood of excelling, rather than failing, under pressure.”