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).

Helping students to graduate ASAP

A study published in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics presents the results from a randomised controlled trial of the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative on students’ academic progress and success. This latest paper considers the long-term impact of the programme (we covered the original study previously in Best Evidence in Brief).

The CUNY ASAP programme is a comprehensive three-year programme aimed at helping more students to graduate from community college more quickly than they otherwise would (in the US, community colleges provide higher education from the age of 18). It aims to remove the barriers to academic success often faced by low-income students and comprises the following components:

  • Students are required to attend college full time, take remedial courses early, and graduate in three years.
  • Each student is provided with a dedicated ASAP advisor.
  • Students receive a tuition waiver covering the difference between the financial aid provided and the cost of tuition and fees. They are also provided with free passes for public transport and free use of textbooks.
  • Students can enrol in courses with other ASAP students in convenient schedules.

The results of the study showed that ASAP had positive impacts on full-time enrolment and credit accumulation. It had an estimated 18 percentage point effect on three-year graduation rates, increased six-year graduation rates by an estimated 10 percentage points, and helped students to graduate more quickly than students in the control group.

Source: Supporting community college students from start to degree completion: Long-term evidence from a randomized trial of CUNY’s ASAP” (July 2019), American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 11 (3).

Providing free glasses to secondary age pupils

Jingchun Nie and colleagues conducted a randomised controlled trial to examine the effects of providing free glasses to pupils in a poor rural area of Western China. 

In this study, screening and vision testing were provided to 1,974 grade seven and eight (Year 8 and 9) pupils from 31 schools located in northern Shaanxi province in China before they were divided into treatment and control groups. Free glasses were distributed in treatment schools to pupils found to need them, regardless of whether they had a pair of glasses already. In contrast, pupils in the control group solely received a prescription for glasses. The glasses usage of the treatment group increased from 31% at baseline at the start of the school year to 72% at the end of the school year, while that of the control group increased from 28% to 50%.

The study questioned pupils about their academic aspirations, administered a standardised exam using items drawn from a bank of questions developed by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and measured the dropout rate to evaluate the intervention. Findings were as follows:

  • Among the pupils without glasses at baseline, the provision of glasses increased their maths achievement (effect size = +0.196), while there was no effect on pupils who already had glasses at baseline.
  • Providing glasses also increased pupils’ aspiration for attending academic high schools (instead of vocational schools) by 9% on average.
  • Providing glasses reduced the rate of dropout by 44% among the pupils who did not own glasses at baseline.

Source: Seeing is believing: Experimental evidence on the impact of eyeglasses on academic performance, aspirations and dropout among junior high school students in rural China (May 2019), Economic Development and Cultural Change DOI: 101086700631

Interleaved practice improves maths test scores

The results of a randomised controlled trial, published in Journal of Educational Psychology, suggest that a greater emphasis on interleaved practice may dramatically improve maths test scores for grade 7 (Year 8) pupils. Whereas most mathematics worksheets consist of a block of problems devoted to the same skill or concept, an interleaved worksheet is arranged so that no two consecutive problems require the same strategy.

Doug Rohrer and colleagues conducted the study with 54 classes in a large school district in Florida during the 2017–2018 school year. Over a period of four months, the classes periodically completed either interleaved or blocked worksheets, and then both groups completed an interleaved review worksheet. All pupils completed the same problems. One month later, pupils took an unannounced test which was set by the researchers. Pupils who had completed the interleaved assignments performed much better on the unannounced test than those in the blocked assignment group (effect size = +0.83).                

The researchers suggest that the large effect sizes observed in the study for interleaved maths practice may be due to the learning strategies it involves, which force the pupil to choose an appropriate strategy for each problem on the basis of the problem itself. They also identified some limitations of the study – particularly that the interleaving pupils took longer to complete their worksheets so effectively spent more time on each topic.

Source: A randomized controlled trial of interleaved mathematics practice (May 2019). Journal of Educational Psychology

Does exercise improve children’s cognitive performance?

Research published in Frontiers in Psychology looks at the effects of a nine-week programme of daily exercise on children’s cognitive performance, aerobic fitness and physical activity levels.

Vera van den Berg and colleagues conducted a cluster randomised controlled trial in 21 classes in eight Dutch primary schools. A total of 512 children aged 9 to 12 participated. The intervention consisted of daily classroom-based exercise breaks of moderate to vigorous intensity. Each break lasted approximately ten minutes, and children were asked to mimic dance moves from a video. Children in the control group watched 10- to 15-minute information and educational videos related to the body, exercise and sports.

Before and after the intervention, children were asked to perform four cognitive tasks to measure their cognitive performance in selective attention, inhibition and memory retrieval. Children’s aerobic fitness was measured with a shuttle run test, and accelerometers were used to measure physical activity throughout the day.

At the end of the nine weeks, the exercise intervention had no effect on children’s cognitive performance or aerobic fitness. Children in the intervention group spent 2.9 minutes more of the school day involved in moderate to vigorous physical activity compared to the children in the control group. The study concludes that daily exercise breaks can be implemented in the classroom in order to promote physical activity during school time, but don’t improve children’s cognitive performance.

Source: Improving cognitive performance of 9-12 years old children: Just Dance? A randomized controlled trial (February 2019), Frontiers in Psychology 10:174

Teacher-pupil-parent feedback and academic performance

A discussion paper from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics reports on a randomised controlled trial to improve teacher-pupil-parent feedback in a rural area of central China with a large proportion of left-behind children (children who have both parents working in cities, and are living away from home).

W Stanley Siebert and colleagues collected data from over 4,000 primary school children (Years 4 and 6) over two school terms, which included academic scores from standardised tests. One class from each year group in each school was randomly chosen to be in the feedback group.  In these classes, all pupils received bi-weekly feedback from their teachers on their schoolwork and behaviour. Additionally, one-third of pupils in these classes were randomly selected to also have their bi-weekly feedback sent to their parents.

The results suggest that feedback does have a positive effect on improving maths and language scores for both left-behind and non-left behind children. In maths, there was an effect size of +0.16 standard deviations in Year 4 and +0.20 standard deviations in Year 6. For language the effect size was +0.09 standard deviations for Year 4 and +0.20 standard deviations for Year 6.  When feedback was communicated to parents the achievement gains were larger for younger left-behind children than for non-left behind children. For left-behind children in Year 4 there was an additional +0.30 standard deviations improvement in maths.

Source: Student feedback, parent-teacher communication, and academic performance: Experimental evidence from rural China (February 2018), IZA Institute of Labor Economics