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).

Printed vs digital text: A meta-analysis

A meta-analysis in the Journal of Research in Reading has synthesised the findings of studies comparing print and digital text regarding time required to read, reading comprehension and readers’ perceptions of their comprehension. Researcher Virginia Clinton performed a systematic literature review, only including studies using random assignment and that were published between 2008 and 2018, yielding 29 reports of 33 studies for analysis. She found that readers require equal amounts of time to read print and digital text, although screen reading negatively impacted reading comprehension (effect size = -0.25). Readers were more accurately able to judge their comprehension on paper (effect size = +0.20) than on screen.

The negative effect on performance for reading text from screens rather than paper did not vary for readers who were adults or children (under 18). However, the author suggests this finding should be interpreted with caution because there were more studies with adult participants (26) than child participants (7).

Best Evidence in Brief reported on an earlier meta-analysis solely examining reading comprehension, whose results also favoured printed text.

Source: Reading from paper compared to screens: A systematic review and meta‐analysis (May 2019), Journal of Research in Reading, volume 42, issue 2

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).

Professional development for early childhood language and literacy

In the field of education, professional development (PD) is intended to improve both classroom teaching and children’s learning. A new study, published in Journal of Educational Psychology, looks at what effect PD has when used at scale with large numbers of educators.

In this large-scale randomised controlled trial, Shayne B Piasta and colleagues examined the effectiveness of a language and literacy PD programme on both teacher and child outcomes in early childhood education. More than 500 teachers across one US state took part in the trial and were randomly assigned to one of three groups: professional development with coaching, professional development without coaching, or a comparison group. Teachers in the PD groups received 30 hours of state-sponsored language and literacy professional development, with those assigned to the coaching groups also receiving ongoing individualised coaching throughout the academic year. Teachers in the comparison group also received state-sponsored PD, but in other subjects.

The results of the trial suggest that PD affected only a few aspects of classroom language and literacy teaching practices relative to the comparison group, and did not affect children’s literacy learning. PD with coaching showed a small positive impact on the quantity of phonological awareness, while both PD with and without coaching had a small positive impact on the quality of teaching in phonological awareness and writing.

Source: At-scale, state-sponsored language and literacy professional development: Impacts on early childhood classroom practices and children’s outcomes (June 2019), Journal of Educational Psychology

How do pupils in China and the US perceive school climate differently?

School climate includes factors that serve as conditions for learning, and support physical and emotional safety, connection, support and engagement, as the US Department of Education suggests. In this study published in School Psychology Quarterly, George Bear and colleagues examined how pupils in China and the US perceive school climate differently and how it relates to their engagement in schools.

A total of 3,716 Chinese pupils from 18 schools in Guangzhou and 4,085 American pupils from 15 schools in Delaware were compared in the study. All schools were suburban schools or urban schools. The sample of American pupils was randomly selected from a larger dataset consisting of 37,255 pupils prepared by the Delaware Department of Education to match the pupil numbers of the Chinese pupil sample. Pupils who participated in this study were from grades 3–5 (Years 4–6), 7–8 (Years 8–9), and 10–12 (Years 11–13). Grade 6 (Year 7) and grade 9 (Year 10) were excluded from this study since pupils in these two grades were placed in different levels in Chinese and American schools.

Pupils were compared in their perceptions of school climate, which included teacher-pupil relations, pupil-pupil relations, fairness of school rules, clarity of behavioural expectations, respect for diversity, school safety, engagement school-wide, and bullying school-wide. Pupils’ engagement was measured by the Delaware Student Engagement Scale. The findings showed:

  • Chinese pupils perceived all aspects of school climate significantly more positively than American pupils during middle school and high (secondary) school.
  • The difference was smaller in elementary (primary) schools, with no significant differences for fairness of rules, clarity of behavioural expectations and school safety.
  • US pupils’ engagement was greater in elementary schools, while Chinese pupils reported greater emotional engagement in middle and high schools.
  • A significant relation between school climate and engagement was found for American pupils but not Chinese pupils.

The authors suggest that the findings might encourage schools to develop and promote those social-emotional competencies, values and norms which have been shown to underlie the high academic achievement of Chinese pupils in addition to school climate.

Source: Differences in school climate and student engagement in China and the United States (June 2018), School Psychology Quarterly, Vol 33(2)

Small class size vs. evidence-based interventions

The Ministry of Education in France introduced a policy in 2002 that reduced class size to no more than 12 pupils in areas determined to have social difficulties and high proportions of at-risk pupils, called Zones d’Education Prioritaire (ZEP). In order to evaluate the effectiveness and usefulness of this policy, researcher Jean Ecalle and colleagues in France examined the results of the policy-mandated class size reduction on the reading achievement of first grade (Year 2) pupils (Study 1), and compared them to the effects of an evidence-based literacy intervention on the reading achievement of at-risk children in normal-sized classes (20 pupils) (Study 2).

Study 1, reducing class size, involved assigning classrooms to either small (12 pupils/class n=100 classes) or large (20–25 pupils/class, n=100 classes) class sizes (with the support of the Ministry). At the start of the 2002–03 school year, 1,095 children were pre-tested on pre-reading skills and matched at pre-test. At the end of the school year, children were post-tested, with results favouring the small-class-size group on word reading (effect size=+0.14) and word spelling (effect size=+0.22).

In Study 2, researchers separated 2,803 first grade (Year 2) pupils in ZEP areas into an experimental group who received an evidence-based reading intervention, and a control group who did not. The intervention was a protocol developed by the Association Agir pour l’Ecole (Act for School), who developed a hierarchy of teaching reading based on evidence-based methods of learning to read, progressing from training phonological skills, to learning letter sounds, decoding, and fluency. Act for School monitored compliance with the protocol weekly. Class size for both groups was 20 pupils. Experimental teachers received one day of training, and provided 30 minutes of teaching a day to average or high readers in groups of 10 to 12, and one hour a day for lower readers in groups of four to six. Again, children were pre-tested on reading skills and matched between groups. All areas post-tested favoured the experimental group, with significant effects in word reading (effect size=+0.13) and word spelling (effect size=+0.12).

Researchers stated that based on the results of both studies, the optimal recommendation to improve literacy skills for at-risk pupils would be a double intervention, combining evidence-based practices within small classes.

Source: Effects of policy and educational interventions intended to reduce difficulties in literacy skills in grade 1 (June 2019), Studies in Educational Evaluation, Volume 61