“THAT’S FRACTIONS!! YOU’RE TRYING TO TEACH ME FRACTIONS! YOU KNOW I’LL NEVER UNDERSTAND FRACTIONS! WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO TO ME? I’LL GO CRAZY!” –Sally Brown, Peanuts
Sally (and, for that matter, Peppermint Patty) has some pretty extreme reactions to learning math. And like many of the crises experienced by Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang, math anxiety is a real phenomenon that impairs learning and performance at all levels. In fact, approximately 25% of students at four-year universities and 80% of those in community colleges experience math anxiety. These students take longer on math exams and yet perform worse than their peers, affecting their initial math placement and subsequent grades. But a growing body of research has identified a simple way to help students deal with this anxiety so they can focus on their exam: expressive writing.
Also known as journaling, expressive writing has a long history beginning with the seminal research of Dr. James W. Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He found people’s general health and well-being improves when they write about stressful situations in their lives in an earnest way. These benefits have been observed for military veterans, cancer survivors, nurses, people quitting smoking, people facing unemployment, and, of course, college students. For example, among students susceptible to experiencing depression, expressive writing reduces the tendency to brood over negative experiences, thereby mitigating these students’ risk for depression up to six months later. And it may come as no surprise that students who experience lower levels of depression would do better in the classroom. In another study, college students who journaled for 15 to 20 minutes per day for four days, compared to students who wrote about time management, had higher GPAs at the end of the year by 0.4 points.
More recently, researchers have applied this technique to a specific, stressful event in students’ lives: a test. These studies show that when students with math anxiety spend 10 minutes before an exam writing down exactly how they feel in that moment, they no longer “choke under pressure.” In a laboratory experiment, math-anxious college students who wrote about their feelings spent the same amount of time on a challenging test and committed the same number of errors as their less anxious peers. Expressive writing works in the classroom, as well. For example, when ninth-graders engaged in expressive writing before their biology final, there were no differences in students’ performance based on their level of anxiety. In another study, college students did better on the MCAT or LSAT when they completed an expressive writing exercise within two weeks before taking the test.
How exactly does this brief intervention work? It is believed that math anxiety elicits intrusive thoughts during an exam that impair performance. In other words, when a student should be thinking about how to define a parabola, they’re instead thinking about how worried they are that they might fail. Such intrusive thoughts may be more likely among students who shoulder the burden of negative stereotypes about their social groups’ performance in STEM, such as women and racial minorities. By acknowledging those anxious thoughts—even without disclosing them to anyone else—students are able to set them aside. In fact, this intervention is most effective when students use more anxiety-related words in their expressive writing. This is why these studies ask students to “let yourself go and explore your emotions and thoughts…” and to “be as open as possible….” In turn, those expressions free up working memory, the cognitive resources necessary for sustained attention and controlled thought, both of which are key to acing those math exams.
Although compelling evidence shows that many college students could benefit emotionally and academically from expressive writing, you may be asking yourself “What college student is actually going to do this?” But an intriguing case study from San Francisco State University suggests that students may be more open to journaling than you might expect. In the Self-Empowering Expressive Purpose (SEEP) program, created by two SFSU students as part of supplemental instruction in undergraduate biology, chemistry, and physics, students are asked to respond to a self-reflective prompt for five minutes at the beginning of each class. Although some students were reticent at first, most came to value the exercise, wanting to do more writing and even desiring feedback from their instructors. This year, the SEEP program is bringing expressive writing to over 300 students across 16 science courses, and will further investigate its impact on these students’ college adjustment and performance.
So whether you introduce expressive writing to your students as a pre-exam relaxation technique or an ongoing strategy for coping with anxieties around math and science, students may be leery at first. But when these students see the impact that this small effort has on their anxiety and their grades, they may very well adopt it to deal with other facets of college life. Are you currently using expressive writing in your classroom or college program? How might you incorporate it into your teaching or advising?
Frattaroli, J., Thomas, M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2011). Opening up in the classroom: Effects of expressive writing on graduate school entrance exam performance. Emotion, 11(3), 691-696.
Gortner, E.-M., Rude, S. S., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms. Behavior Therapy, 37, 292-303.
Klein, K., & Boals, A. (2001). Expressive writing can increase working memory capacity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(3), 520-533.
Lumley, M. A., & Provenzano, K. M. (2003). Stress management through written emotional disclosure improves academic performance among college students with physical symptoms. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(3), 641-649.
Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science, 331(14) 211-213.
Sloan, D. M., Marx, B. P., Epstein, E. M., & Dobbs, J. L. (2008). Expressive writing buffers against maladaptive rumination. Emotion, 8(2), 302-306.