I studied for weeks. I attended office hours. I finished every possible homework problem, tutorial exercise, and past exam. I wrote the test.

I blanked.

University students face countless pressures. There are pressures to earn scholarships, to get accepted to graduate schools, to please parents, to compete with friends and classmates. Often, students work themselves so hard that they crumble when they actually write a final exam.

But are yoga classes, stress balls, or comfort food the best way to clear the mind?

University of Chicago psychologists Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock thought they would test a different approach: writing.

Writing has been shown to have therapeutic benefits. James W. Pennebaker, an American psychology professor and linguist, documented the earliest work on what is now called “writing therapy”. He found that students who wrote about traumatic experiences in their life had better immune systems, fewer doctor visits, and increased psychological well-being than those who just wrote about anything at all.

The problem with studies on the effects of writing is, how do you scientifically prove a person develops a healthier state of mind? Was it really because of writing?

Ramirez and Beilock set up two studies. In the first study, they wanted to compare whether writing had any effect at all. The scientists recruited college students and asked them to complete a pre-test and a post-test of abstract algebra. Before doing the pre-test, the students were told to “do their best”. After the pre-test, the researchers upped the stakes.

The scientists told each student that there would be a monetary award given, but only if the student showed extremely high performance. To add even more pressure, they told the student that he or she was partnered with another student who already wrote the test, and that student had done really well.  Even worse, the student was told his or her performance would be videotaped and watched later by teachers and other students.

So, the student just about to write the test was now fully responsible for winning or losing the award. And they would be watched the entire time.

But the scientists created two stress environments. In one environment, students were just given the pressure incentives. In the other, students were given the pressure incentives and then asked to write about how they felt for 10 minutes.

All the students wrote the post-test. Students who wrote about their feelings about the post-test scored significantly higher than those who didn’t.

With this in mind, a second study was done to look into what type of writing was most beneficial. The scientists studied actual grade nine biology students before their very first exam. They surveyed the students to ask how much they stressed over exams.

The scientists then split the students into three groups: one group wrote about anything, another group wrote about their worries about the exam, and a third group did not write at all.

Scores dropped from high 80s in the pre-test to low 80s in the post-test for both the students who wrote about anything and those who didn’t write at all. But the students who wrote about their worries scored from high 80s in the pre-test to mid-90s in the post-test. Further, the students who rated themselves as the biggest worriers were found to benefit most from the stress-writing exercise.

Worrying is believed to distract a person’s short-term working memory. It’s this working memory that a student needs to use to process and manipulate information when writing an exam. Writing about what’s worrying you may address the worries directly, lifting them from your mind and allowing you to concentrate on the task at hand.

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