Test anxiety is common and all students experience it. While some are unfazed, others struggle with its negative impact on memory and thinking. Finding a way to mitigate it’s harmful effects would be a major win for test prep experts. Fortunately, we’re not the only ones on the case. Harvard researchers may have discovered how crack the code to reverse the effects of test anxiety.
In their quest to find a solution, Harvard researchers turned to the class of cognitive-enhancing neurotransmitters called catecholamines. These neurotransmitters are present when people experience anxiety but have cognitive-enhancing effects when individuals perceive themselves as “up to the challenge.” The researchers reasoned that if they could convince students that their anxiety was just a symptom of feeling “up to the challenge,” they could harness the cognitive benefits of catecholamines. In essence, anxiety would become an ally rather than a hindrance.
To test this hypothesis, the researchers recruited students planning to take the GRE, the graduate school equivalent to the SAT. They then randomly divided the students into two groups, a test group and a control group. The control group read only general instructions, while the test group read those same instructions followed by this priming statement:
“People think that feeling anxious while taking a standardized test will make them do poorly on the test. However, recent research suggests that arousal doesn’t hurt performance on these tests and can even help performance… People who feel anxious during a test might actually do better. This means that you shouldn’t feel concerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s GRE test. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”
After reading the statement, the researchers collected saliva samples to confirm elevated catecholamine levels in the test group. As expected, the saliva samples indicated higher levels of catecholamines in the test group. But the real breakthrough came when the students took a practice GRE. The test group, who had received the priming statement, significantly outperformed the control group. Remarkably, this trend continued when the students took the actual GRE exam weeks later. The researchers had effectively transformed test anxiety into a test-beating ally!
If you just wanted to learn the secret, you can stop reading. If you’re curious as to why this technique really works, then read on.
It’s true that the priming statement improved GRE scores —and that’s a major find! However, there are many types of catecholamines, some beneficial and others detrimental to test-taking, so their exact roles in this context are unclear. The priming statement itself was sufficient to raise catecholamine levels, and there is no reason to suspect elevated catecholamines levels persisted or were responsible for the testing improvements. Established research (e.g., Hofmann et al., 2009) suggests a more straightforward explanation than the exotic catecholamines hypothesis. Test anxiety tends to be a self-reinforcing cycle: students who believe anxiety is impeding their performance become even more anxious, which further impedes their performance, and so on. The researchers likely succeeded in breaking this anxiety feedback loop by teaching students to welcome their anxiety. As ironic as it may seem, students who welcome their test anxiety will actually manage to suppress it. After all, if anxiety is a good thing, why be anxious? This technique is called arousal reappraisal and has many applications in therapeutic contexts.
What’s important to us here at Ivy Tutor is that researchers found an evidence-backed method for reducing test anxiety and improving test performance, providing us with yet another test prep technique for our repertoire.
Hofmann, S.G., Heering, S., Sawyer, A.T., Asnaani, A. (2009) How to handle anxiety: The effects of reappraisal, acceptance, and suppression strategies on anxious arousal. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47, 389–394.
Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., Blackstock, E., & Schmader, T. (2010). Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves performance on the GRE. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 208–212.