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Exam anxiety? Channel that nervous energy into something positive

Change your thoughts, the world around you starts to change. Source: Shutterstock

Exams can strike fear in any student, regardless of how prepared or unprepared one feels. There’s so much pressure from parents, teachers and the school to do well that the stress and anxiety can negatively affect students’ test scores.

On top of that, so much can ride on one’s exam results – from scholarship applications to university enrollments and worrying about how they fare when compared to their peers, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

Despite that, exams are part and parcel of student life, which makes it crucial for students to learn to manage their worries and emotions to avoid a negative effect on their performance, especially for high-stakes exams.

However, a study published earlier this year suggests that a writing exercise could help quell students’ test anxiety.

In the US, ninth grade students in high school were randomly assigned to engage in one of four writing exercises immediately before their first and second semester final examinations.

“Students were randomly assigned to the following conditions: (i) an expressive writing intervention in which students wrote freely about their thoughts before the test, (ii) a reappraisal intervention in which students were asked to evaluate their symptoms of stress as helpful for test taking, (iii) an intervention that combines the expressive writing and reappraisal interventions, and (iv) a an active control condition that instructed students to ignore symptoms of their stress and nervousness. Students received the same type of writing exercise before both finals,” said the report.

They added:

  • Expressive writing interventions target the cognitive component of anxiety (i.e. worries) by asking individuals to write about and express their thoughts and concerns
  • It may help aid emotion regulation and perceived control of stressful situations by individuals and thus, help offload worries and free cognitive resources that can be used to optimise performance
  • Physiological arousal (e.g. a racing pulse) can be viewed as a beneficial and energising force for performance

The simple 10-minute writing exercises taken before the test helped students see stress as something useful that could help them in their exam.

The study also found that these exercises were particularly useful for disadvantaged students, who feel they have less margin for error when compared to their peers with higher socioeconomic backgrounds who have access to help such as tutors to boost their performance.

The authors note: “Students from lower-income backgrounds may shoulder an unequal burden as they must perform at a high level even though they experience increased anxiety about academic performance in testing contexts, which can undermine the cognitive resources available to devote to the task at hand.”

They add, “after being given the opportunity to regulate their emotions with targeted interventions, lower-income students in our study were more likely to report seeing adaptive benefits in experiencing stress during examinations.

“This finding underscores the potential for emotion regulation interventions to change students’ personal narratives about academic stress. Theories of emotion regulation posit that changing how students perceive or appraise one stressful event (e.g. a test) can lead to long-term changes in the likelihood of viewing future stress more positively in precisely this way.”

Hence, the results show that this could be a useful tool in narrowing the achievement gap between low- and high-income students for a more even playing field.

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