It's an expressive writing activity, and it couldn't be much simpler or more straightforward. Before students start an exam, on a sheet fastened to the front of it, they spend five minutes (or some other designated time period) writing about their thoughts and feelings regarding the exam.
In a recent article, Doherty and Wenderoth shared their experiences using the strategy in a 100-student introductory biology course. They gave the students five minutes to write, though most students wrote for a shorter period of time. Students were not allowed to start the exam until the five minutes were up. At the five-minute mark, students were instructed to rip off the sheet, crumple it up, and toss it into one of the aisles, which, to the surprise of the instructors, turned out to release tension and help students relax. There was laugher, with some of the writings ending up as paper airplanes. The crumpled, anonymous papers were picked up during the exam, which had been shortened to accommodate the writing activity.
Doherty and Wenderoth borrowed the idea from research done by Ramirez and Beilock. Extensive prior research in psychology has documented the value of people writing about traumatic or emotional experiences after they've occurred. Ramirez and Beilock reasoned, “If worries lead to poor test performance and writing helps regulate these worries, then giving students the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about an impending examination would enhance test performance” (p. 211).
The research team tested that assumption with four different studies, two conducted in a cognitive laboratory with college students and two in ninth-grade classrooms. Students participating in the research had the opportunity to write about their feelings for 10 minutes before they started the exam. Both in the lab setting and in the classrooms, students who did this writing activity outperformed those who didn't write. In the first lab study, pretest performance between the control and experimental groups was not different. The testing situation involved math problems and a created “high-pressure situation.” Students who completed that task but did not write before it showed a 12 percent drop from pretest to posttest. Those who expressed their feelings in writing showed a significant five percent improvement from pretest to posttest.
In one of the classroom studies, the research team focused on students with high test anxiety and found that the writing activity improved test scores: “If writing alleviates the impact of worries on performance, then highly test-anxious students should benefit the most” (p. 213). The second classroom study further confirmed this finding, stating that “the benefits of expressive writing are especially apparent for students who are habitually anxious about taking tests” (p. 213).
Doherty and Wenderoth looked at the content of their students' pretest writing and found that students wrote about different things. Some used the time to review, making notes about course content. Others wrote test-taking reminders: “remember to work fast; breathe, breathe.” Some complained about exams and the course, and a few offered up prayers. What was interesting to Doherty and Wenderoth was how the content of writing changed across the four exams in the course. By the end of the course, more students were using the time to review and write test-taking reminders. Fewer were complaining, but about the same number were praying. There was another interesting benefit noted by Doherty and Wenderoth. They found the writings offered them “insight into our students' feelings about exams and their coping mechanisms, which greatly improved our empathy toward our students. As a result, we now have added one more exam” (p. 2).
Exam anxiety is no joke. It compromises the performance of somewhere between 15 to 20 percent of students. Fifty percent of Doherty and Wenderoth's students self-reported that they experienced test anxiety. It fills students' minds with worries about if they'll do well and the consequences if they don't, whether they're as smart as their peers, if they've studied the right things, whether they'll understand the questions, and on and on. All this mental activity happens in working memory, crowding out what students do know and could be using to answer exam questions. If a simple strategy like this helps students move past their worries, it's well worth the five minutes it takes.
Doherty, J. H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2017). Implementing an expressive writing intervention for test anxiety in a large college course. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, 18(2), 1–3.
Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science, 331(6014), 211–213.