Writing Across the Curriculum/
Writing in the Disciplines
Writing Away Anxiety
About the experiment: Researchers in the Department of Psychology and Committee on Education at the University of Chicago studied the effect of a 10-minute pre-exam writing exercise designed to relieve the anxiety of ninth-grade students about to take their first significant high school exam. While the experiment was conducting using ninth grade science students, the underlying concepts that inspired the study come from research on people of all ages who used writing to cope with trauma. Some pedagogical ideas don’t translate well between high school and college, but similar writing “interventions” based on psychology have been shown to help both college students and younger students, as demonstrated by the studies described on page four.
The results: For students who reported struggling with text anxiety, simply writing about their exam-related fears for 10 minutes prior to the exam resulted in an average grade increase from a B- to B+.
Why writing works: The psychologists who designed the experiment study why athletes, musicians, and students “choke” under pressure. They cited research that shows how writing after experiencing a trauma has been shown to lessen its impact. The psychologists designed the study to determine if writing before a stressful exam would allow anxious students to perform better due to relief from their worried thoughts. The researchers explained that the brief writing exercise helped the students with test anxiety to perform at the level of their less anxious peers by alleviating the impact of stress on their working memories, and thus performance. They believe that by writing about a stressful event like a test before it happens, the anxiety that some of the students felt was cleared from their working memories, leaving more space available during the test for test-related information.
How to use the worksheet: You can photocopy and distribute the exercise at the end of this article to students at the start of class before a high-stakes exam. Instruct students to read the instructions and write quietly for ten minutes. Let the students know that you will not collect their worksheets or look at their writing. You can also provide extra copies of the worksheet for students to take and use before exams in other classes, since the exercise will work in courses across the curriculum, and even when not administered by a faculty member.
The worksheet we provide was adapted from a description of the writing exercise used in: Ramirez, Gerardo, et al. “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom.” Science 331 (14 January 2011): 211-213.
Pre-Exam Stress Relief—10 minutes
Please take the next 10 minutes to write as openly as possible about your thoughts and feelings regarding the exam you are about to take. In your writing, really let yourself go and explore your emotions and thoughts as you are getting ready to start the exam. Feel free not to worry about spelling and grammar or how well written your answer is. You might relate your current thoughts to the way you have felt during other similar situations at school or in other situations in your life. Please try to be as open as possible as you write about your thoughts at this time. Remember, there will be no identifying information on your essay and I will not collect your responses—I cannot link your writing to you. Start writing.
Ramirez, Gerardo, et al. “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom.” Science 331 (14 January 2011): 211-213.