as exam season approaches…

February 16, 2011

I’m always on the look out for solid studies that help illustrate how understanding “the mind” can impact our day-to-day lives. Test taking is obviously one endeavor that is grounded in cognition. However, getting students to appreciate the complexity of studying (encoding) and retrieval (spitting out the answers) is tough because they have a wonderfully simple, and naive, sense of what is involved in the process. Often times, frustration they experience after an exam centers on this issue of “I studied all the material, but I just couldn’t remember it for the test”. Of course this is frustrating, but once you understand better the complex set of processes that is involved, you can make sense of it (and maybe find ways to avoid it in the future).

So, with all this mind, a study by Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock (click here for the article and click here for a related podcast with Dr. Beilock) from the University of Chicago caught my eye. The premise of the study was quite simple – too much anxiety has a negative effect on test taking performance, and some of that negative impact seems to be the result of rumination (thinking about the challenges and consequences of the testing). The researchers reasoned that the rumination could be tying up working memory resources (you can think of working memory as those processes that allow you to “keep information in mind”) that are needed to succeed during the testing. They also noted that expressive writing, writing about thoughts and feelings associated with a specific event, has been used by clinical psychologists to help patients with depression attenuate rumination focused on negative thoughts and experiences. With these ides in mind, the researchers examined whether a short (10 minute) expressive writing task would assist students in high pressure testing situations by diffusing some of the rumination associated with the upcoming test, thus freeing up working memory resources and allowing for better test performance. The short answer is “yes”. You can read the article in Science (it is short) to get all the details, but the summary is that performance for participants in the control conditions (no writing or writing about an “unrelated emotional event”) decreased from a low-pressure pretest to the high-pressure target test while the performance of the participants in the expressive writing condition improved. I especially like that the authors included a couple of field experiments as well – using ninth grade biology students facing their final exam – that nicely replicated the findings and added some external validity to the results. They were also able to show how the effect of the expressive writing is especially positive for “high-anxiety” students.

So, whether you’re preparing for your midterm exams or giving midterm exams or helping your child study for these exams, this is an interesting study to think about. Go cognitive science!


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