Think differently, score higher: Study reveals key to exam ...

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Think differently, score higher: Study reveals key to exam success

Emotion regulation exercises help pupils approach exams the right way

Cape Town bureau chief


What if improving science results for low-income high school pupils was as simple as helping them deal with their exam anxiety?
Turns out, it is.
A study among 1,200 Grade 9s in the US found that when they were helped to deal with stress, biology failure rates halved.
“Your anxiety can affect how you demonstrate what you know when it matters most,” said cognitive scientist Sian Beilock, who led the study, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We were particularly interested in whether we could help improve test scores in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], an area where a broader representation of pupils is needed.”
Beilock, president of Barnard College in New York City, said scientific job opportunities were expanding, but pupils from poorer families took fewer STEM classes than other pupils, in part because they performed poorly in them.
One factor may be that they were not expected to do well, creating performance anxiety, she said.
The study’s lead author, Stanford University psychologist Christopher Rozek, said the results showed schools should prioritise pupils’ emotional well-being to help them fulfil their potential.
The 14- and 15-year-olds in the study completed emotion-regulation exercises before biology exams.
Those assigned to an “expressive writing” intervention spent 10 minutes writing about and exploring their feelings about the test.
Beilock’s previous research found that writing about anxieties reduced their burden, making them feel more manageable and freeing cognitive resources for the task at hand.
Pupils given a “reappraisal” intervention tried to turn their anxiety into excitement. They read a passage explaining that physiological arousal – a raised heartbeat and sweaty palms – is the body’s way of preparing for an important task, and that the energy can be harnessed for success. Then they summarised what they had read.
A third group of pupils got versions of both interventions, and the control group summarised a passage instructing them merely to ignore their stress.
The researchers found that lower-income pupils using any of the three interventions significantly improved exam scores, reducing their performance gap with higher-income pupils by nearly a third.
When they looked at Grade 9 science course results, the researchers found the interventions increased the pass rate for lower-income pupils from 61% to 82%.
“We found that emotion regulation interventions reduced the substantial achievement gaps between higher-income and lower-income pupils on course-passing rate by more than half,” said Rozek.
“Pupils from higher-income backgrounds were more likely to hold the belief that a little stress during tests can be helpful for performance, while lower-income pupils were less likely to view exam stress as helpful – unless they completed the emotion regulation interventions.”
Beilock said brief emotion-regulation exercises, lasting 10 minutes twice a year, could dramatically reduce failure rates and were easily implemented on a large scale in a working school.

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