Using expressive writing to reduce test anxiety

Test anxiety can have negative impacts on pupils’ performance and psychological health. This study published in PLoS One examined whether expressive writing could be beneficial to alleviate test anxiety. Lujun Shen and colleagues conducted a randomised controlled trial among high school pupils in China who were facing The National Higher Education Entrance Examination (Gaokao), which is considered a crucial exam.

The study randomly selected 200 pupils (aged 16-17) from three high schools in Xinxiang city. Pupils were first assessed for eligibility. A sample of 75 pupils was recruited into the study for having a high level of test anxiety. Next, 38 of the pupils were allocated into an expressive writing group, and 37 of them were allocated to a control writing group. Pupils in the expressive writing group were instructed to write for 20 minutes about the positive emotions they had each day, consecutively for 30 days. Pupils in the control writing group were instructed to write about their daily activities consecutively for the same period of time.

Pupils were assessed using the Test Anxiety Scale (TAS) during the recruitment (late April), and after the end of the writing (early June). The study also analysed summaries of the writing manuscripts of the 38 expressive writing group pupils for qualitative data. The findings were as follows:

  • The expressive writing group scored significantly lower than the control writing group in the Test Anxiety Scale post-test.
  • There were no significant gender differences in the post-test TAS scores.
  • Qualitative analysis of the writing found more elements of positive emotion in the last ten days of expressive writing compared to the first ten days among the expressive writing group.

The authors suggest that expressive writing is an easy, inexpensive, and convenient method to cope with anxiety because it does not require a psychological counsellor nor a specific location.

Source: Benefits of expressive writing in reducing test anxiety: A randomized controlled trial in Chinese samples (February 2018), PLoS One, 5(13).

Understanding maths anxiety

While mathematics is often considered a hard subject, not all difficulties with the subject result from cognitive difficulties. Many children and adults experience feelings of anxiety, apprehension, tension or discomfort when confronted by a maths problem. Research conducted by the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge examined the maths performance of more than 2,700 primary and secondary pupils in the UK and Italy who were screened for maths anxiety and general anxiety. Researchers then worked one-to-one with the children in order to gain deeper understanding of their cognitive abilities and feelings towards maths using a series of cognitive tasks, questionnaires, and interviews.

Emma Carey and colleagues found that a general feeling that maths was more difficult than other subjects often contributed to feelings of anxiety about the subject, and that teachers and parents may inadvertently play a role. Girls in both primary and secondary school were found to have higher levels of both maths anxiety and general anxiety.

Pupils indicated poor test results, or negative comparisons to peers or siblings, as reasons for feeling anxious. Secondary school pupils also indicated that the transition from primary to secondary school was a cause of maths anxiety, as the work seemed harder and there was greater pressure on tests and increased homework.

The report sets out a series of recommendations, including:

  • Teachers should be aware that maths anxiety can affect pupils’ maths performance.
  • Teachers and parents need to be aware that their own maths anxiety might influence pupils’ math anxiety.
  • Teachers and parents also need to be aware that gendered stereotypes about maths ability might contribute to the gender gap in maths performance.
  • Reducing classroom pressure and using methods like free writing about emotions before a test could help to alleviate maths anxiety.

Source: Understanding mathematics anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school students (March 2019), Centre for Neuroscience in Education, University of Cambridge

Test anxiety and performance in high-stakes testing

A study published in Contemporary Educational Psychology suggests that the relationship between test anxiety and performance in high-stakes tests is positive, but the relationship varies for pupils with different achievement levels.

Yao-Ting Sung and colleagues at the National Taiwan University used data from 1,931 Taiwanese ninth grade (Year 10) pupils from 37 schools. The Basic Competence Test (BCTEST) was used to benchmark their achievement. The BCTEST is a high-stakes test for Taiwan junior-high school pupils, determining to which high schools with different levels of prestige and tuition fees they will be admitted. Subjects in the test included Mandarin, English, mathematics, social studies, science and writing. Test anxiety was measured by the examination stress scale.

Findings include:

  • The overall relationship between text-anxiety and learning achievement in high-stakes testing was positive (r =+0.18).
  • Lower levels of test-anxiety were found among high-achievement and low-achievement pupils while higher levels of test-anxiety were found among moderate-achievement pupils.
  • For higher achievement pupils, the relationship between text-anxiety and achievement in high-stakes testing was found to be negative (r = -0.16), while for the group of pupils with lower achievement, a positive relationship was found (r= +0.22).

Source: Reexamining the relationship between test anxiety and learning achievement: An individual-differences perspective (July 2016), Contemporary Educational Pyschology, Volume 46

Does a parent’s anxiety about maths negatively affect their child’s maths achievement?

A maths app may help eliminate the negative association between parents’ maths anxiety and children’s maths achievement in early elementary (primary) school, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

The researchers tracked the maths achievement of 587 pupils from 40 classrooms in the Chicago area from first to third grade (Year 2 to 4). In the first grade, pupils and their families were randomly assigned tablets loaded with either a maths app or a similar reading app.

Parents were also given a questionnaire to complete in order to assess a variety of attitudes and behaviours related to maths and reading. Maths anxiety was measured using the Mathematical Anxiety Rating Scale. At the end of the first grade, parents were given a second survey to complete. Children’s maths achievement was measured using the applied problems subset of a nationally-standardised test.

By the end of third grade (Year 4), children of maths-anxious parents who were in the reading app control group had learned less maths than children of parents with no maths anxiety; learning the equivalent of approximately five fewer months of maths. However, this was not the case for children in the maths app intervention group, and children with maths-anxious parents showed the same maths progress as pupils with parents who had no maths anxiety.

These results suggest that parents’ maths anxiety is negatively associated with children’s maths achievement in early elementary school, and that the decreased negative association observed in the intervention group is due in part to a change in parents’ attitudes. The researchers conclude that when families used the app together, parents’ attitudes toward maths changed and they were able to disassociate their own maths anxiety from their children’s ability in maths.

Source: Disassociating the relation between parents’ math anxiety and children’s math achievement: Long-term effects of a math app intervention (December 2018), Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 147(12)

Maths anxiety, working memory and self-concept

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Jaén, Spain, and published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology looks at the relationship between maths anxiety and maths performance in primary school children, and also the possible mediating role of working memory and maths self-concept.

A total of 167 pupils in grades 3 and 5 (age 8–12 years) took part in the study. Each pupil completed a set of questionnaires to assess maths anxiety and self-concept as well as their mathematical performance. Working memory was assessed using two backward span tasks. Teachers were also asked to rate each pupils’ maths achievement.

As expected, results showed that pupils who demonstrated higher levels of anxiety about maths tended to have lower scores on maths outcomes such as ability, problem‐solving and teacher‐rated maths achievement. However, this relationship was lessened once the effects of working memory and self-concept were considered. The researchers suggest, therefore, that it is worth taking into consideration working memory and self-concept when designing interventions aimed at helping pupils with maths anxiety.

Source: Math anxiety and math performance in children: The mediating roles of working memory and math self‐concept (May 2017), British Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 87, Issue 4

Outcomes of a single-session intervention for teenage anxiety and depression

A study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry examines whether a half-hour, self-administered, single-session intervention (SSI) teaching growth mindset can reduce depression and anxiety and strengthen perceived control in high-risk teenagers.

Teenagers (aged 12–15) and their parents completed separate baseline questionnaires about the young person’s anxiety and depressive symptoms, which were then repeated over a nine-month follow-up period. Teenagers also reported on their perceived behavioural control. The teenagers were then randomised to receive either a 30-minute computer-guided intervention teaching growth mindset (the belief that personality is malleable), or a supportive therapy control.

Compared to the control group, teenagers who received the SSI had greater improvements in parent-reported depression (effect size = +0.60) and anxiety (+0.28), as well as self-reported depression (+0.32) and perceived behavioural control (+0.29) from baseline to nine-month follow-up. The effects of the intervention on self-reported anxiety were +0.36.

The report concludes that the findings suggest a promising, scalable SSI for reducing anxiety and depression in high-risk teenagers.

Source: A single-session growth mindset intervention for adolescent anxiety and depression: 9-month outcomes of a randomized trial (September 2017), The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry