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Boosting Your Grades

The following is information that we normally give to your teachers, but these writing exercises have been so successful for students that we’re sharing them with you. After all, our goal is to equip you to take charge of your education. Use the writing exercises at the end of each section to boost your grades.

Pre-Exam Stress Relief—10 minutes
average grade increase of B- to B+

Writing Out Stereotypes—15 minutes
average grade increase of C to B (most helpful for women and minority students with negative academic stereotypes)

Writing Connections with Science—15 minutes
average increase of 2/3 of a letter grade

Note Taking Tips
practical tips and linked examples of what to write down

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.



About the experiment: A study by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder Department of Psychology and Neuroscience demonstrates the link between short “values-affirmation” writing exercises and improved performance among women in college physics classes. This study was inspired by a 2006 article and follow-up study about values-affirmation writing producing significant cross-curriculum and long-term improvements in the grades of seventh-grade African American students.

The results: For women, especially those who most strongly endorsed the stereotype that men are naturally better at physics than women, two 15-minute writing exercises during the semester had significant results. The first writing exercise was given in class within the first four weeks of the semester, while the second was administered online toward the middle of the semester. The women and men in the experiment group selected their most important values from a list (such as relationships with family or gaining knowledge) and wrote about why they are important to them. Women in the control group tended to earn C grades, while those women in the experiment group on average earned grades in the B-range for the course. 

In the study of seventh graders, values-affirmation writing produced a 40% reduction in the grade gap between African American students and their European American peers. While the writing exercise was administered in only one course, researchers noticed that the exercise equally impacted the students’ grades in every course. Overall, researchers found that African American students who wrote a few affirmation exercises raised their cumulative grades by .24 points (on a 4-point scale) in all of their classes. For lower-performing students, the results were even more dramatic: these students’ GPAs improved an average of .41 points. The psychologists returned to the students two years after the writing exercise experiments and found that even without continuing to do additional values affirmation writing, the gains in the students’ grades remained.

Why writing works: Affirming one’s own values helps students belonging to groups whose academic abilities has been negatively stereotyped to overcome “identity threat” and focus on their own interests and motivations rather than on the fear that they are unable to perform at a high level or that their failure to do well in class will lead to additional negative stereotypes for their group.

How to use the worksheet: We recommend distributing this worksheet once during class time in the first four weeks of the semester. Allow students 15 minutes to do the exercise at some point during class. Let the students know before they begin that you will not collect their worksheets. At some point toward the middle of the semester, you can provide the students with the worksheet again, but instruct them to do the exercise on their own at home.

The worksheet we provide was adapted from a description of the writing exercise used in: Miyake, Akira, et al. “Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation.” Science 330 (26 November 2010): 1234-1237.

Writing About Values—15 minutes

Circle two or three of the values most important to you:

being good at art
relationships with family and friends
government or politics
learning and gaining knowledge
athletic ability
belonging to a social group (such as your community or school club)
spiritual or religious values
sense of humor

Write about why the values you selected are important to you.  Focus on your thoughts and feelings, without worrying about spelling and grammar or how well written your answer is.

Look again at the values you selected.  Write on the back of your sheet about the top two reasons why these values are important to you.


Cohen, Geoffrey L., et al. “Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap.” Science 324 (17 April 2009): 400-403.

———. “Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention.” Science 313 (1 September 2006): 1307-1310.
Miyake, Akira, et al. “Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation.” Science 330 (26 November 2010): 1234-1237.

About the experiment: Researchers tested how writing could help ninth-grade students remember information they learned in their science courses. Those students who summarized science information and then wrote about how it applied to their lives learned significantly more than students who did not write or wrote more generally about course information without connecting it to their lives.

The results: Especially among those students who had the lowest expectations for their success in the course and enjoyment of science classes, researchers saw remarkable gains. By the end of the semester, these students reported more interest in science and received grades 2/3 of a letter grade higher than similar students in the control group.

Why writing works: The students in the control group wrote about the course content, but did not link it directly to their lives. This suggests that certain types of expressive writing are effective, while others may not yield measurable results. It seems that having students explain how science concepts covered in class impact their lives helps students to create new and personal memories of course information that they can access while taking exams and once the course is finished.

How to use the worksheet: The facing worksheet is intended to help students review material at the end of a unit or chapter. Allow students 15 minutes during class to complete the exercise quietly. You may or may not wish to collect the exercises—the activity does not require input from instructors to have the positive effect on student learning.

The worksheet we provide was adapted from a description of the writing exercise used in: Hulleman, et al. “Promoting Interest and Performance in High School Science Classes.” Science 326 (4 December 2009): 1410-1412.

Life Relevance Review Activity—15 minutes

Pick one of the topics or concepts that we have covered in this class and briefly summarize the main parts.

Apply this topic/concept to your life, or to the life of someone you know. How might the information be useful to you, or a friend/relative, in daily life? How does learning about this topic apply to your future plans?


Hulleman, et al. “Promoting Interest and Performance in High School Science Classes.”      Science 326 (4 December 2009): 1410-1412.

Learning through Listening and Writing

Note taking is an essential skill for succeeding in school. It allows you to learn your course material through writing. In the process of taking notes in class you will create a study aid for your exams, quizzes, and projects. Below are some examples of strategies that you can incorporate in your writing.

Some general suggestions for note taking:

  • Make your notes short. Avoid using full sentences and instead write phrases.
  • Write your notes in your own words.
  • Skip lines - leave visual breaks between definitions, lists, or explanations.

Leaving space allows you to fill in information from the assigned reading after class.

  • If you miss something, leave a blank in your notes so that you can fill it in later. If you try to copy the missing information right away from your neighbor, both of you will lose more material.
  • If your professor repeats something in class, make sure that you write it down.
  • Create abbreviations for words that are frequently used in course (this is where your texting skills come in handy).
  • Sharing—If you’re absent from class or you missed something that your professor said during class, be sure to borrow and copy notes from a fellow student.
  • Review your notes for at least ten minutes every week (the night before or the morning of your next class is an especially good time). This will keep all of the material fresh in your mind and prepare you for the days work ahead as well as the exam and in-class work and projects.

The links below provide tips and examples of several different note-taking methods. You can decide which strategy or combination of strategies works best with your learning style. 
This site has a brief instructional video on taking notes and how to use your notes to study. 
This site has a downloadable PDF of the Cornell Note Taking Method. It gives you an example of the visual lay out of how to organize class lecture information in note form.
This site provides simple instructions on note taking, listening, and participation.