Have you ever experienced test anxiety while taking an important exam? You studied long and hard for the test, experienced the usual jitters that usually come before any exam, then went to class, received the exam and immediately experienced a terrible panic attack that seemed to make you forget all the answers and freeze in terror.
The demon test just lay on your desk and seemed to chuckle as you trembled in fear.
The Big Choke!
Let me tell you -- I have had test anxiety. It can be debilitating and horribly frightful.The worst case for me happened during a college graduate school exam for Statistics and Measurements class. Being an English major, I must confess I was not particularly fond of taking this required class. But, things seemed to be going well until mid-term exam. That is when I experienced my biggest choke.
Realizing my lack of interest and modest math skills could hurt me, I studied long and hard for the test. The day of the mid-term, I also made a presentation for the county curriculum committee, so I did have my hands full, but the presentation went well, and I was in good spirits before my evening class. I felt confident that I had fully prepared for the task at hand. "Just bring that bad boy on" I thought as I drove to class.
I arrived on time, the prof handed out the test, one of those one-hour time restricted exams. He began to mark time, and I looked at the first few questions, spied a troubling symbol in a formula, and instantly morphed into a puddle of sweat and panic. I actually began to have problems breathing -- I had absolutely no recall or control of my emotions. I asked to get a drink of water.
After composing myself as much as possible, I returned to the test and the never ending countdown of available time when, just then, I witnessed a classmate sobbing uncontrollably while simply staring at her test. I must admit that I lost it. Jesus, people were crying and gasping over this test. I tried to fill out what I could before the hour limit, turned in my paper, and left the room in shock.
The next class, we got our tests back. I think the prof scaled the grades, but I still scored something like a D- on his best curve. That was the bad news. The good news was that I scored one of highest "A" scores in class on the Stats and Measurements final. I studied so much before that final that I believe I could have actually written the textbook from memory.
So, if you have ever experienced bouts of test anxiety, I have some promising news for you. It relates to expressive writing, which I preached religiously as a calming (and often exploratory) prewriting aid to my high school Senior Composition students. Even brief periods of expressive writing before a difficult task can help anxious people relieve something we all dread -- The Big Choke!
According to a University of Chicago study published in the journal Science, students can combat test anxiety and improve performance by writing about their worries immediately before the exam begins.
Researchers found that students who were prone to test anxiety
improved their high-stakes test scores by nearly one grade point after
they were given 10 minutes to write about what was causing them fear,
according to a study in the January 14, 2011 issue of Science
based on research supported by the National Science Foundation.
(Gerardo Ramirez, Sian L. Beilock. "Writing About Testing Worries
Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom." Science, 2011; 331)
The writing exercise allowed students to unload their anxieties before taking a test. And, amazingly, the exercise also freed up brainpower needed to complete a test successfully -- the same brainpower normally occupied by worries about that "nasty old" exam.
It seems the research showed that pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain's processing power known as working memory, which is critical to many everyday activities. According to a Science Daily report on the research: "Working memory is a sort of mental scratch pad that allows people to retrieve and use information relevant to the task at hand. But it is a limited resource, and when worries creep up, the working memory people normally use to succeed becomes overburdened. That can sap the brain power necessary to excel." ("Writing About Worries Eases Anxiety and Improves Test Performance." ScienceDaily. January 13 2011)
Beilock, one of the authors of the study is one of the nation's leading experts on "choking under pressure" -- a phenomenon in which talented people perform below their skill level when presented with a particularly challenging experience. Her recently published book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, gives advice on how to avoid choking in situations ranging from high-stakes exams to important business presentations and athletic competitions.
"Despite the fact that people are often motivated to perform their best, the pressure-filled situations in which important tests, presentations and matches occur can cause people to perform below their ability level instead," Beilock said.
Ramirez and Beilock call writing about personal exam fears before taking a test a "Heimlich maneuver for choking under pressure."
Researchers recruited 20 college students and gave them two short math tests. On the first test, students were told simply to do their best. Before the second test, researchers created a situation designed to produce stress, by saying students who performed well would receive money and that other students were depending on their performance as part of a team effort. Students also were told that their work would be videotaped, and that math teachers would review it.
Half of the students then received 10 minutes to write expressively about their feelings about the upcoming test (expressive writing group), and the other half was told to sit quietly (control group).
"The expressive writing group performed significantly better than the control group," the authors write. "Control participants 'choked under pressure,' showing a 12 percent accuracy drop from pre-test to post-test, whereas students who expressed their thoughts before the high-pressure test showed a significant 5 percent math accuracy improvement."
In another experiment researchers showed that it wasn't just
the act of writing that inoculated students against choking;
rather, specifically writing about test-related thoughts
and feelings had helped.
The researchers also conducted two experiments involving ninth-grade biology students taking the first final exam of their high school career. They tested the students for text anxiety six weeks before the final exam by asking students to rate items such as "During tests, I find myself thinking about the consequences of failing."
Before the biology finals, the students were given envelopes with directions to either write about their feelings on the test, or to think about topics that wouldn't be on the test. When researchers looked at students' final scores, they found that students who hadn't written had higher test anxiety and a worse final exam score -- even when accounting for the student's grades throughout the school year.
However, for students given the opportunity to write before the exam, those highest in test anxiety performed just as well as their less anxious classmates. "Writing about your worries for 10 minutes before an upcoming exam leveled the playing field such that those students who usually get most anxious during exams were able to overcome their fears and perform up to their potential," Beilock said.
Writing about unspoken fears of failure and related anxieties
lets students reevaluate such concerns and keep them at bay during a test.
Indeed, students highly anxious about taking tests who wrote down their thoughts before the test received an average grade of B+, compared with the highly anxious students who didn't write, who received an average grade of B-.
"Even if a teacher does not provide a chance to write before an exam,
students can take time to write about their worries
and should accordingly improve their performance," Beilock said.
"In fact, we think this type of writing will help people perform their best in variety of pressure-filled situations -- whether it is a big presentation to a client, a speech to an audience or even a job interview," she explained.
The Beilock and Ramirez study supports earlier findings by psychologist James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin. His research linked writing about personal conflicts and traumas over several days at the start of a college semester to improved physical health and final grades by semester’s end. (J.W. Pennebaker. Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval. 2004)
Researchers have also found that depressed people who write about distressing personal experiences over several months ruminate progressively less about melancholy topics.
Let's Do Some "Supposin'"
Imagine this. It's the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh and deciding game of the 2013 Major League World Series. The Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees are knotted at three games apiece. And, this, the championship game, is tied 3-3. The hometown Reds have loaded the bases, recorded two outs, and the next batter is renowned hitter Joey Votto.
New York calls "timeout" as the manager approaches the mound to bring in the Yankees' left-handed relief specialist. Fans, media and the Yankee opposition all notice Votto quickly return to the dugout. There, he sits patiently, laptop computer on his knees, typing some unknown text into his word processor. As the Yankee reliever approaches the mound to warm up, Votto continues to remain focused on the keyboard, typing and evidently oblivious to the "pressure cooker" situation.
The Cincy manager now calls for time allowing Votto to finish his mysterious writing task. The manager inserts a pinch runner at third base and the runner deliberately loosens his legs in preparation to score.
All in all, about ten minutes have passed since the reliever entered the game. Just then, the home-plate umpire yells, "Play Ball!"
Votto calmly closes his laptop, confidently picks up his bat, and heads for the batter's box. The crowd explodes in excitement and antipation as he steps to the plate. Great American Ballpark is literally shaking from the tumult. Each Reds fan is thinking the same thing: "Please, Joey, don't choke now."
In the meantime, Votto, cool as a crisp fall morning, takes his stance, waves his bat, stares out at the mound, and awaits a pitch that is destined to be entered in the annals of Major League history.
What could Votto possibly have been writing on that laptop? Even those expert national network commentators with their overblown, never-ceasing analysis of the game don't have a clue. But, I do. Don't you?
"I'm scared shitless. After all I signed a ten-year contract for $225 million, and I've only gone eight for thirty in the Series. I need to perform. A good eye- a walk will win the game. Yeah, I have a good eye. Lead the league in walks. What will he throw me on the first pitch? Should I take a strike or two. Fastball in the zone - I have to swing at it. Just a hit, a single for Christ's sake, I've done this a million times. But, he'll probably jam me or drop a slider, his best pitch. Don't sucker for the ball outside or the high pitch. Don't help him.
"Damn, the entire Series is on my shoulders -- all the fans, the kids, the championship for the city. What the fuck? I am nervous but I should be. I can put this energy to work for me. And, this is what they pay me for -- to hit under pressure. No big deal, just breathe deep now and "see the ball, hit the ball" like Doggy says. I'm in control and the "choke" is on the pitcher. I can do this. I will do this. I played ball all my life for this opportunity. Hell, this is my moment. Relax, relax, automatic. Take my time. Good, hard contact. Nobody or nothing is going to scare me out of a great at bat. Focus. Good Lord willing. I'm feeling a lot better. Simple task, just fundamental. I got this. I want this."
Just then, the home-plate umpire yells, "Play Ball!"