Date: Feb 21, 2013 6:36 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: How to eliminate test anxiety

From Annie Murphy Paul, The Brilliant Report - A Monthly Newsletter
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[Our thanks to Michael Goldenberg for bringing this piece to our
How to eliminate test anxiety

Annie Murphy Paul

In the February 11 issue of Time magazine, I have an article about
test anxiety-the nervousness that many of us feel when confronted
with an exam-and the techniques that psychologists have developed to
get rid of it. Here, some insights adapted from that article:

As any parent or teacher knows, tests can create crippling anxiety in
students-and anxious kids can perform below their true abilities. But
new research in cognitive science and psychology is giving us a
clearer understanding of the link between stress and performance, and
allowing experts to develop specific strategies for helping kids
manage their fears. These potential solutions are reasonably simple,
inexpensive and, as recent studies show, effective. Some work for a
broad range of students, while others target specific groups. Yet
they're unfamiliar to many teachers and parents, who remain unaware
that test anxiety can be so easily relieved. Here, three such

1. Unload on paper. When students feel nervous, their capacity to
think clearly and solve problems accurately is reduced, says Sian
Beilock, a cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago. Students
taking an exam must draw on their working memory, the mental holding
space where we manipulate facts and ideas. "When students are
anxious, their worries use up some of their working memory, leaving
fewer cognitive resources to devote to the test," Beilock explains.
One method recently tested successfully by Beilock and a colleague,
Gerardo Ramirez, had students spend ten minutes writing about their
thoughts and feelings immediately before taking a test. The practice,
called "expressive writing," is used by psychologists to reduce
negative thoughts in people with depression. They tried the
intervention on college students placed in a testing situation in
Beilock's lab, and in an actual Chicago school, where ninth-grade
students engaged in the writing exercise before their first high
school final. In both cases, students' test scores "significantly
improved," accor

While one might imagine writing about a looming exam would only
heighten students' anxiety, Beilock says the opposite was the case.
"Writing about their worries had the effect of 'offloading' them onto
the page, so that the students had more cognitive horsepower
available to apply to solving problems on the test," she explains.
For both groups, Beilock and Ramirez reported in Science, "one short
writing intervention that brings testing pressures to the forefront
enhances the likelihood of excelling, rather than failing, under

2. Affirm your values. Apprehension over tests can be especially
common among minority and female students. That's because the
prospect of evaluation poses for them what psychologists call
"stereotype threat"-the possibility that a poor performance will
confirm negative assumptions about the group to which they belong
(among the specious, anxiety-inducing tropes: girls can't excel in
math and science; blacks and Latinos aren't college material). This
additional layer of anxiety can lead such students to perform below
the level they are capable of. "Girls, and black and Latino students,
are often dealing with a double dose of test anxiety," says Stanford
University psychologist Gregory Walton. "The nervousness everyone
feels when they're being evaluated, plus the worry-conscious or
not-that a poor performance will prove that the negative assumption
about their group is correct."

Walton's colleague at Stanford, psychology professor Geoffrey Cohen,
devised an intervention aimed at reducing stereotype threat. Like the
exercise designed by Beilock and Ramirez, it asks students to write
briefly, but in this case participants are instructed to choose
something they value and write about why it matters to them. "Music
is important to me because it gives me a way to express myself when
I'm mad, happy, or sad," one participant wrote. In one study, this
"values affirmation" exercise was shown to shrink the performance gap
between white and black students by 40 percent. In another, it erased
the gap in test scores between women and men enrolled in a
challenging college physics course, raising the women's average grade
from a C to a B (higher than the average male student's grade).

3. Engage in relaxation exercises. Younger kids aren't immune from
test anxiety. As early as first and second grade, researchers see
evidence of anxiety about testing. Their worries tend to manifest in
non-verbal signs that adults may miss, says psychologist Heidi
Larson: stomachaches, difficulty sleeping, and a persistent urge to
leave the classroom to go to the bathroom. "I had one mother tell me
that her son had no problem with tests," recalls Larson, a professor
of counseling and student development at Eastern Illinois University.
"Then a week later she came back and said that her son had burst into
tears the night before the big end-of-year exam, saying that he was
afraid he wouldn't be promoted to the next grade."

Larson designed an intervention especially for younger students,
involving breathing and relaxation exercises, and examined its
effectiveness on a group of third-graders. "We had students lie on
mats on the floor of their classrooms. They closed their eyes and we
asked them to focus on their breathing, then on tensing and relaxing
groups of muscles in their legs, arms, stomachs and so on," Larson
recounts. "Some of the kids became so relaxed they fell asleep!" A
control group of students at another school received no such
training. The study, which was published in the Journal of School
Counseling in 2010, reported that the relaxation intervention had "a
significant effect in reducing test anxiety."

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244