Express Before You Test

Anyone who has written an essay for a class knows that writing is a difficult yet necessary task. From grocery lists to PhD dissertations, writing is a vital method of manifesting thought, helping us remember important information, express ourselves, process the world around us, and share our ideas with others in a tangible way. There are many theories explaining how people write and what kind of writing is most useful in particular contexts. One specific body of scientific literature focuses on the therapeutic benefits of expressive writing, which includes writing about emotional or traumatic experiences. A subset of these studies explores how expressive writing might help students cope with stress and anxiety in academic settings.

WHAT IS EXPRESSIVE WRITING?

The expressive view in the teaching of writing emerged in the mid-1960s [1]. Characterized by a more personal approach, expressivist scholars emphasized that writing could be sincere, reflect creative processes, and unlock the potential of the writer’s unconscious mind [1]. In other words, expressive writing might allow the writer to self-actualize through the composition process, creating a reciprocal relationship between personal development and writing [1]. Departing from the traditional, highly rigid views of writing that focused on logical, correct language and set composition structures, researchers began to develop writing techniques that we still see in classrooms today. For instance, the concept of free writing emerged during this period, providing a space for the spontaneous and authentic reactions of students in the classroom to stimulate further thinking [1].

Studying expressive writing in a research setting typically involves assigning study participants to two groups, both of which are asked to write for three to five days in a row, with each daily writing session lasting between 15 to 30 minutes. The control group is asked to write about routine occurrences, while the expressive writing group reflects on much more significant, emotional aspects of their lives—relationships with family and loved ones or reflections on the self and identity. Writings are not evaluated for any kind of correctness or value; the only specific requirement is that participants write consistently for the allotted time per day [2]. Researchers focus on different elements of the expressive writing process depending on the context of the study; sometimes they analyze writing samples for linguistic features, like positive or negative emotion words, or they measure physiological responses, such as heart rate, during the act of writing [2].

Research also suggests that expressive writing, when used as a therapeutic tool, has both mental and physical health benefits [2]. Similar to the spoken disclosure and discussion of personal feelings, this written approach often elicits intense emotional responses [2]. Certain studies have also showed some physical responses to the expression of emotional topics in writing, including immune system benefits and short-term reductions in heart rate. Psychological and behavioral effects can be difficult to consistently measure due to the subjective nature of written expression, but reductions in stress and improvements in mood have been reported. Of course, these beneficial effects are dependent on a number of factors, including what participants write about, how often and for how long they write, and participants’ socioeconomic backgrounds [2]. It should be noted that the benefits of expressive writing are not absolute and can be highly variable between individuals.

MECHANISMS OF EXPRESSIVE WRITING

To understand why expressive writing might be a useful approach for students with test anxiety, it is necessary to look at its psychological and neural mechanisms. Early hypotheses included the idea that expressing traumatic or stressful events in writing was an important way to reduce the effects of not talking about the thoughts and feelings associated with those events [3, 1]. Suppressing trauma through inhibitory behaviors could put people at risk for stress-related health problems; thus, expressive writing could provide an outlet to articulate those events and associated feelings rather than repress them [3]. Based on these assumptions, it was important to determine how inhibition-related stress might change in the short- and long-term through the application of expressive writing. A group of undergraduate students was divided into an expressive writing group and a group that wrote about non-traumatic, superficial topics. Both groups were assigned to write for 15 minutes each night for four consecutive days [3]. Interestingly, results showed that writing about traumatic events generally increased blood pressure and participants’ reports of negative moods after the first writing session. However, six months after the study, participants who wrote about traumatic events reported fewer visits to health and counseling centers [3]. Recent research suggests that using expressive writing exercises to write about past stressful events can actually be helpful in mitigating the effects of a current stressful event [4]. One study showed that levels of cortisol, a biological correlate of stress, decreased when participants wrote about past failures before completing a public speaking activity [4].

It should be noted that inhibition studies tend to show varied results and are not always the most conclusive explanation of the mechanism behind expressive writing [2]. Additionally, because the short-term benefits of expressive writing might not manifest immediately, an inhibition model does not provide the fullest explanation as to why expressive writing right before an exam might be helpful for students. However, the hypothesized benefit of expressing and articulating one’s thoughts instead of repressing them is still a foundation for the research.

Expressive writing has also been shown to improve students’ available working memory when they wrote about intense personal feelings [5]. One particular study divided college freshmen into two groups, the first of which wrote on their feelings about attending college while the second group wrote about time management. Students were given a working memory test and a College Adjustment Test (CAT) at the beginning of the semester, then participated in three 20-minute writing sessions over the course of two weeks, took two more working memory tests, and completed a final CAT and questionnaire in the weeks following the writing sessions. Results indicated that the expressive writing students showed an improvement in working memory compared to the control group. There was even a correlation between the improvement in working memory and higher GPA both during the trial semester and the next semester [5].

The researchers conducted a second experiment in which students wrote about negative or positive events in their lives [5]. Compared to students who wrote about positive life events or daily routines, the negative expressive writing group experienced more benefits to their working memory capacity. The negative writing group’s working memory scores actually improved by the end of the eight-week experiment and were higher than the positive writing and control groups. Additionally, the negative writing students reported a decrease in unwanted and intrusive thinking, which was not apparent in the students who wrote about positive events or daily routines. Researchers explained that expressive writing could allow students to better store and process information by reflecting on intense thoughts and feelings, especially those associated with negative events. While the results of this study are more long-term, the suggested working memory benefits of expressive writing are likely important for students in a test-taking environment [5].

The effects of expressive writing can be observed neurologically, and the areas of the brain that respond to expressive writing can help predict changes in physical health, depression, anxiety, and life satisfaction [6]. Specifically, the amygdala and the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC) are involved in the neural processes that occur during an affect labeling activity, like expressive writing, in which a person expresses thoughts and feelings in words. In one study on affect labeling, researchers used fMRI to observe that increased activity in the RVLPFC was associated with a decrease in activity in the amygdala, an area that facilitates emotional responses. This particular effect of the increase in RVLPFC activity and the decrease in amygdala activity predicted a more effective outcome for participants using an expressive writing intervention in the study [6]. These results suggest that expressive writing could help mitigate intense emotional responses that lead to intrusive thoughts, which is especially relevant for people trying to focus in stressful situations.

EFFECTS OF EXPRESSIVE WRITING ON STUDENT STRESS AND ANXIETY

Expressive writing has been shown to be a low-cost and potentially beneficial intervention in a targeted context. More specifically, it has been used as a tool in studies exploring how to help students manage stressful academic situations. Because students in stressful exam settings tend to worry about the test at hand, which can impede their focus and reduce scores, completing an expressive writing exercise before the exam might help improve performance [7].

To test this hypothesis, researchers performed an experiment in which college students were given two different math exams [7]. During the first test, the students were simply instructed to perform as well as they could. In the second test, the students were placed into high pressure scenarios in which the results of their tests would determine if they would receive a monetary award and positive social evaluations from peers and instructors. The researchers divided the students into a control group, which did nothing for 10 minutes before taking the test, and an expressive writing group, in which students wrote about their feelings related to the test for 10 minutes. While the first test did not show any significant difference between student scores, the second test revealed an improvement in the scores of the expressive writing group and a drop in the scores of the control group. In order to confirm that these results were not due to the difference between writing and doing nothing before the test, researchers used the same methods to compare the difference in scores between an expressive writing group that wrote specifically about the test and an unrelated writing group that wrote about an unemotional event. The results showed that the expressive writing group’s scores increased between tests while the scores of the unrelated writing group and control group decreased, supporting the positive benefits of expressive writing [7].

Using a procedure similar to the one employed in the lab, this experiment was repeated in a group of ninth grade biology students preparing for their first final exam [7]. The students’ general test anxiety about the exam was measured six weeks before test day through a survey administered to them in class. On the day of the final exam, students were randomly split into control and expressive writing groups. For 10 minutes before the exam, the expressive writing students were instructed to write about their thoughts and feelings about the test while the control group was instructed to think about a topic that would not appear in their biology exam. In the control group, if the students had higher ratings of test anxiety, their scores on the exam were lower; however, this was not the case in the expressive writing group. Results showed that the higher test anxiety students performed better on the exam if they completed the expressive writing exercise beforehand. Students with low test anxiety did not display a significant change in grades in either group. This study suggests that students who worry significantly about tests and are affected by high-pressure exam situations could benefit from pretest expressive writing exercises [7].

In general, more recent studies have corroborated these results. In one study, Chinese high school seniors with high levels of test anxiety engaged in expressive writing exercises or control writing exercises every day for 30 days [8]. The expressive writing group was instructed to reflect and write for 20 minutes per day on their positive emotions for that day; the control group simply wrote for 20 minutes about their daily activities. Test Anxiety Scale (TAS) scores were compared between both groups before and after the experimental period and showed a significant reduction in the expressive writing group’s anxiety scores [8]. These students were not reflecting on deep thoughts or feelings, nor were they asked to reflect on stressful academic situations. Their reflection on positive emotions suggests that expressive writing does not always have to deal with difficult emotions to be an effective resource for students. Writing about positive emotions could help students focus on what makes them feel good, even in the face of academic pressures. However, this study only measured test anxiety rather than actual test scores, so it cannot be determined whether writing about positive emotions before a test will improve performance.

It should be noted that many of the studies explored here vary in terms of trial period. Some studies show that expressive writing is effective when done consistently over a number of weeks or months; others show a more immediate change. When thinking about how to implement expressive writing in the classroom to help alleviate test anxiety, it is important to consider these variations in timing, especially since not all students will respond in the same way to this practice. Based on the results of these studies, expressive writing should be an option provided to students, but implementation must be deliberate and consistent so students feel that there is a purpose to expressive writing activities. Allowing some time for reflection in an academic setting can help students make sense of how they relate to the classroom and could be a powerful resource for those with test anxiety.

CONCLUSION

Expressive writing is all about helping individuals find a voice and express their thoughts and feelings in an open, flexible way. As a therapeutic tool, it proves useful for some targeted populations, such as students with high levels of test anxiety. Recently, variations of the expressive writing methodology have been used to study how expressive writing affects postpartum health, quality of life for breast cancer survivors, and how it might be used by palliative caregivers to process the emotional nature of their work [9, 10, 11]. While the studies involving the breast cancer survivors and the palliative care workers suggested positive effects for the participants, the study on postpartum women reported there was no significant change in the psychological health, physical health, or the quality of life between the women who participated in expressive writing exercises and the women assigned to control writing exercises and normal care procedures [10, 11, 9]. Thus, the use of expressive writing can be useful for some individuals, but the difference between these studies shows that it may be a more specific intervention tactic rather than a general one with consistent results [9].

While expressive writing might not be a universally applicable destressor, and effectiveness can vary based on its short- or long-term use, it may be helpful in certain contexts, such as high-pressure testing environments. The articulation of thoughts that might interrupt academic performance can be achieved through expressive writing, thus reducing intrusive thoughts caused by test anxiety and improving working memory capacity. Making time for reflection in the classroom enables students to process and express their concerns, allowing them to literally see their worries laid out on the page.

References

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  3. Pennebaker, J. W. & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.
  4. DiMenichi, B. C., Lempert, K. M., Bejjani, C., & Tricomi, E. (2018). Writing about past failures attenuates cortisol responses and sustained attention deficits following psychosocial stress. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12(45), 1-9. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00045
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  8. Shen, L., Yang, L., Zhang, J., & Zhang, M. (2018). Benefits of expressive writing in reducing test anxiety: A randomized controlled trial in Chinese samples. Public Library of Science One, 13(2). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0191779
  9. Ayers, S., et al. (2018). Evaluation of expressive writing for postpartum health: a randomised controlled trial. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 41(5), 614-626. doi: 10.1007/s10865-018-9970-3
  10. Lu, Q., Gallagher, M. W., Loh, A., & Young, L. (2018). Expressive writing intervention improves quality of life among Chinese-American breast cancer survivors: A randomized controlled trial. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 52(11), 952-962. doi: 10.1093/abm/kax067
  11. Tonarelli, A., et al. (2018). Expressive writing. A tool to help health workers of palliative care. Acta BioMedica, 89(6-S), 35-42. doi: 10.23750/abm.v89i6-S.7452

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