Strange as it sounds, the best way to overcome test anxiety might very well be to put your fears down on paper. In four separate studies, a pair of University of Chicago researchers found that students substantially improved their test scores by taking ten minutes to write down their feelings about an important exam right before taking the exam.

The overall effect was to eliminate the drop in test score traditionally seen among people with high test Anxiety.

High-anxiety students who did the writing exercise had similar test grades to their low-anxiety peers.

Just as people who've experienced a traumatic event benefit from expressing their feelings about the event afterwards, the researchers thought that anxious students would benefit from expressing their feelings about a stressful and potentially traumatic test. The difference was that the students would do so before the test, not afterwards.

The researchers first tested out their idea in a laboratory setting. They had 20 college students take two math tests. The first test was low key; students were simply told to do their best. For the second test, the researchers tried to simulate more pressurized conditions. The students were paired and promised a monetary reward if they scored well on the test. But both partners had to do well to win the money. The students were also videotaped and told that math teachers would later be watching their performance. Half of the students were told to spend 10 minutes before the test writing about how they felt about the test. The other half sat quietly during this time.

Those who wrote about their feelings saw their scores improve on the second test by 5%. Those who didn't saw their scores drop by 12%.

A similar study was conducted with 47 college students and included a third group, a group who spent the 10 minutes before the test writing about an unemotional event not related to the test. Their scores on the second test dropped by about 7%, as did the scores of those who did no writing at all. Those who wrote down their feelings about the test saw their scores rise by 4%. This suggests that that the improved scores aren't due to writing alone; it's writing about the test anxiety that's important.

The researchers then tested their theory on students who were taking a real, pressurized exam.

These studies were done on high school freshmen, ninth graders taking the first final exam of their high school career, a biology test. Two studies were done in successive years, the first year with 51 students, the second year with 55. Each year, the students were given a questionnaire measuring their general test anxiety six weeks before the exam. On the day of the exam, half wrote about their feelings toward the test 10 minutes before taking it, while the other half did not.

When the tests were graded, the students in the non-writing group who had scored high on the anxiety questionnaire had the worst grades. But high-anxiety students who did the writing exercise had similar test grades to their low-anxiety peers. Low-anxiety students performed about the same whether or not they took part in the writing exercise.

So the researchers think they've found a way to successfully combat test anxiety.

According to the researchers, the writing exercises work because once you've got the worries on paper, you don't need to worry about them during the test. Whatever the reason for its effectiveness, the method seems to be a simple and no-cost way to triumph over test dread.

And if it's not possible to do the writing directly before the test, the researchers think doing so earlier in the day might also do the trick.

An article on the studies was published in the January 14, 2011 issue of Science. The journal also provides a podcast of an interview with one of the researchers, Sian Beilock, in which Dr. Beilock discusses the studies and their meaning.