New Research from Pres. Sian Beilock Helps Students Excel on Science Exams

college presidenteducationSTEM A new study released today reveals that helping lower-income high school freshman to regulate their test-taking anxiety can cut their biology course failure rates in half. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted by Barnard College President Sian Leah Beilock and her research team found that brief pre-exam de-stressing strategies could reduce the performance gap often seen between lower-income and higher income students.

“It’s not just about what you know in a particular moment, but your perceptions of the situation, your worries also matter. Your anxiety can affect how you demonstrate what you know when it matters most,” says Beilock, a nationally recognized cognitive scientist who studies the pressures children face in school. “We were particularly interested in whether we could help improve test scores in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], an area where a broader representation of students is needed.”

Job opportunities in STEM fields are expanding, but students from lower-income families are often ill-prepared for them. Much of the discrepancy begins in high school, where they don’t take as many STEM classes as other students, in part because they perform poorly in them. One factor may be that they’re not expected to perform well, creating performance anxiety. The researchers hoped to address some of the downstream psychological consequences of this anxiety, freeing students’ minds to unleash their potential.

“This study shows that students’ grades are not just about what they know,” said Christopher Rozek, lead author on the study and a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. “Students’ emotions factor into how well they do in their classes, and schools should continue to prioritize students’ emotional well-being in order to help students perform up to their potential.”

Close to 1,200 freshmen at a large high school in the Midwest took part in the study. They each completed emotion-regulation exercises before their mid-year and final biology exams. Those randomly assigned to the “expressive writing” intervention were asked to spend ten minutes writing about and openly exploring their feelings about the test. Beilock and other researchers have previously shown that writing about one’s anxieties paradoxically reduces their burden, making them feel more manageable and freeing cognitive resources for the task at hand.

Students given the “reappraisal” intervention instead tried to turn their anxiety into excitement. They read a passage explaining that physiological arousal—a fast heartbeat and sweaty palms—is actually the body’s way of preparing for an important task and that such energy can be harnessed for success. Then they summarized what they’d just read. Previous research has shown that reappraisal, too, can improve performance.

A third group of students got versions of both the expressive writing and reappraisal intervention. A final group served as a control by summarizing a passage instructing them merely to ignore their stress.

The researchers were especially interested in the performance of lower-income students, those who received free or reduced-price lunch. They found that for these students, using one of the three key interventions—expression, reappraisal, or both—instead of the control

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