SEATTLE (AP) -- A simple writing exercise can relieve students of test anxiety and may help them get better scores than their less anxious classmates, a new study has found.
The report to be published in Friday's edition of the journal Science says students who spend 10 minutes before an exam writing about their thoughts and feelings can free up brainpower previously occupied by testing worries and do their best work.
"We essentially got rid of this relationship between test anxiety and performance," said Sian L. Beilock, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study with graduate student Gerardo Ramirez.
Psychologists, educators and parents have known for a long time that the way students perform on a test does not necessarily indicate what knowledge they bring to the table. Test anxiety is fairly common in classrooms, especially in the United States because of its "increasingly test-obsessed culture," Beilock said.
Test anxiety can lead to poorer grades and lower scores on standardized tests and college entrance exams, which can condemn talented students to inferior colleges.
The University of Chicago researchers found that students who were prone to test anxiety improved their test grades by nearly one grade point _ from a B-minus to a B-plus, for example _ if they were given 10 minutes before an exam to write about their feelings.
The researchers tested their hypothesis with college students in a lab setting and with high school students in the classroom, by first gauging the level of test anxiety and then offering the writing intervention to some students.
The researchers believe worrying competes for computing power in the brain's "working," or short-term, memory. If working memory is focused on worrying, it can't help a person recall all the information his brain stored in preparation for the test. It also affects the working memory's ability to stay focused.
Beilock said the idea for the writing exercise came from the use of writing to combat depression.
Expressive writing, in which people write repeatedly about a traumatic or emotional experience over several weeks or months, has been shown to decrease worrying in people who are depressed.
Beilock believes this research is applicable to all kinds of performance anxiety _ from giving a speech to interviewing for a job.
"There's a lot we can do to change how we think about the pressures and thus how we perform," she said.
The next stage of the research project, which is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, will involve a look inside the anxious brain to see how it changes during stressful situations, Beilock said.
She also hopes to develop more interventions to help people perform better during stress. Her lab is looking at how awareness of stereotypes affect the way people perform, such as women and math phobias.