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
Pre-Exam Stress Relief
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.
Writing Out Stereotypes
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
belonging to a social g