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Test Anxiety and Tests

January 28, 2011

It seems like every semester a few students surprise us by doing poorly on major tests. At our school, at the highest level of ESL classes, students in reading and writing must pass both final exams and state exit exams in order to leave our program and begin college study. We see cases of what look like test anxiety, so I read the article in the VOA News about a possible solution with interest. The article reports on some research done at the University of Illinois Chicago:

Some students get so nervous before a test, they do poorly even if they know the material. Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago in Illinois, has studied these highly anxious test-takers.

He used an intervention of having students write about their fears before taking a test. His results look promising:

The researchers tested the idea on a group of twenty anxious college students. They gave them two short math tests. After the first one, they asked the students to either sit quietly or write about their feelings about the upcoming second test.

The researchers added to the pressure. They told the students that those who did well on the second test would get money. They also told them that their performance would affect other students as part of a team effort.

Professor Beilock says those who sat quietly scored an average of twelve percent worse on the second test. But the students who had written about their fears improved their performance by an average of five percent.

Next, the researchers used younger students in a biology class. They told them before final exams either to write about their feelings or to think about things unrelated to the test.

Professor Beilock says highly anxious students who did the writing got an average grade of B+, compared to a B- for those who did not.

Now, I am wondering how I can implement something like this with our students. How do I convince them to come to the ESL lab before a second final or before the state exit exam second finals to write about their fears in the hope that this will help the students deal better with their test anxiety. If it works, we could keep doing it.

A second article in the New York Times, To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test, that caught my attention regarded how retrieval tests are more effective in helping students retain information than repeat studying or text diagramming. The author, Pam Belluck, explains it this way:

The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.

One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.

These other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.

In the experiments, the students were asked to predict how much they would remember a week after using one of the methods to learn the material. Those who took the test after reading the passage predicted they would remember less than the other students predicted — but the results were just the opposite.

The retrieval tests had the students write for 5 minutes about what they had just read. They outperformed all the students and even outperformed the students who made the concept maps when asked to make concept maps as a testing activity. In the abstract for the article, the subjects were all taking science tests and the conclusions applied only to science studies.

The common thread for both articles is writing about either the feelings or the content. Writing seems to do something to the brain that helps it handle feelings and information effectively.
This might be a little more difficult to apply to ESL because the learning and use of the learning differs. Still it gives me food for thought especially when I look at the difficulties some students are having with reading. Should I ask them to write about what they have just read about how to find the main idea? Would that help them find the main idea? Can I justify the time spent if it doesn’t?

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