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Implementing an Expressive Writing Intervention for Test Anxiety in a Large College Course

    Authors: Jennifer H. Doherty1,‡,*, Mary Pat Wenderoth1,‡
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    Affiliations: 1: Department of Biology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195
    AUTHOR AND ARTICLE INFORMATION AUTHOR AND ARTICLE INFORMATION
    • Received 13 February 2017 Accepted 12 April 2017 Published 11 August 2017
    • ©2017 Author(s). Published by the American Society for Microbiology.
    • [open-access] This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ and https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode), which grants the public the nonexclusive right to copy, distribute, or display the published work.

    • Supplemental materials available at http://asmscience.org/jmbe
    • *Corresponding author. Mailing address: UW Biology, Box 351800, Seattle, WA 98195-1800. Phone: 206-616-4029. Fax: 206-685-1728. E-mail: doherty2@uw.edu.
    • These authors contributed equally to the manuscript.
    Source: J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. August 2017 vol. 18 no. 2 doi:10.1128/jmbe.v18i2.1307
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    Abstract:

    Test anxiety is a widespread problem that negatively impacts student performance. The mechanism proposed to explain the deleterious effect is that anxious thoughts occupy space in working memory, thus diminishing cognitive capacity. Expressive writing is an intervention shown to decrease the impact of test anxiety. For this intervention, students respond to a prompt directing them to write-down their thoughts and feelings regarding the upcoming exam. To investigate the feasibility of using this intervention in college courses and to discern our students’ thoughts about taking exams, we implemented the intervention in our large introductory biology course. The prompt was placed on the cover page of each exam and students were given five minutes to write. Students were then instructed to rip off, crumple up, and throw the page into the closest aisle and begin the exam. Even though they could not start the exam early, students only spent approximately two minutes writing. Clean up of papers was reasonably accomplished during the exam. Interestingly, crumpling and throwing papers seemed to dissipate tension and created a more relaxed atmosphere in the classroom evidenced by laughing and paper airplanes. We assigned the anonymous student writing into categories (e.g., doodling, pep talks, course content, anxious) as we were interested to see the variation in student responses and monitor if student feelings changed over time. We suggest instructors consider using this intervention to decrease the impact of test anxiety. We found the implementation logistics manageable and reading students’ thoughts made us more empathetic with our students’ experiences.

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/content/journal/jmbe/10.1128/jmbe.v18i2.1307
2017-08-11
2018-07-16

Abstract:

Test anxiety is a widespread problem that negatively impacts student performance. The mechanism proposed to explain the deleterious effect is that anxious thoughts occupy space in working memory, thus diminishing cognitive capacity. Expressive writing is an intervention shown to decrease the impact of test anxiety. For this intervention, students respond to a prompt directing them to write-down their thoughts and feelings regarding the upcoming exam. To investigate the feasibility of using this intervention in college courses and to discern our students’ thoughts about taking exams, we implemented the intervention in our large introductory biology course. The prompt was placed on the cover page of each exam and students were given five minutes to write. Students were then instructed to rip off, crumple up, and throw the page into the closest aisle and begin the exam. Even though they could not start the exam early, students only spent approximately two minutes writing. Clean up of papers was reasonably accomplished during the exam. Interestingly, crumpling and throwing papers seemed to dissipate tension and created a more relaxed atmosphere in the classroom evidenced by laughing and paper airplanes. We assigned the anonymous student writing into categories (e.g., doodling, pep talks, course content, anxious) as we were interested to see the variation in student responses and monitor if student feelings changed over time. We suggest instructors consider using this intervention to decrease the impact of test anxiety. We found the implementation logistics manageable and reading students’ thoughts made us more empathetic with our students’ experiences.

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