“Psychological interventions that improve grades could ultimately help keep more low-income students in the sciences,” says Christopher Rozek, a psychologist at Stanford University and lead author of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Statistics show that low-income students are much less likely than high-income students to complete four years of high school science. They found that, at a large Midwestern high school, almost 40 percent of low-income biology students were poised to fail the course, compared to just 6 percent of the high-income students. With a psychological intervention of some simple measures aimed at reducing test anxiety, that failure rate was halved.
The problem with not completing the four years of high school science is that it leads to those students being less likely, or unable, to major in science and math in college or to pursue related — often lucrative — careers in adulthood. Rozek says, “one of the many factors underlying this achievement gap is low-income students’ internalized feelings of inadequacy in such fields. Those feelings often translate to high pretest anxiety and worse grades.”
It was already known (and seems like common sense) that reducing performance anxiety can improve test scores. The study by Rozek and colleagues involved recruited 1,175 freshman biology students at a public high school in Illinois; 285 of those students came from a low socioeconomic background. They wanted to do an experiment to see if they could calm these students down before an exam. So then Rozek’s group investigated whether 10-minute-long reading and writing prompts before an exam could improve test performance.
Students were placed in one of four groups:
- Group 1) The control group. They were simply told to ignore anxiety.
- Group 2) They were instructed to write about their fears. This method was intended to clear up the headspace needed to focus on an exam.
- Group 3) They had to read a statement explaining that the physiological responses to stress, such as a racing pulse or sweaty palms, can actually be beneficial and help with attention.
- Group 4) They had participated in both activities – writhing and reading exercises.
Out of the 205 low-income students in the three experimental groups, 168, or 82 percent, passed their exams, compared with just 49 of 80 students, or 61 percent, in the control group (group 1). The three types of interventions (group 2-4) all worked equally well.
Higher-income students experienced no benefit most likely because they were already more adept at emotional regulation Rozek concluded.
Thoughts On The Study
Robert Tai, a science education expert at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is skeptical about the study’s emphasis on passing exams. His research shows that students’ interest in math or science matters more than grades when it comes to later career trajectories. Therefore, getting good grades doesn’t mean they’ll follow through with science or math studies in university. “Improving a student’s test scores will not improve the rate of them pursuing the sciences,” says Tai.
Whether or not this is true is not the point. The importance is of why it’s beneficial for students to get better grades. The study illustrates that at least part of a test score has less to do with knowledge of the material than mindset. And the fact that by passing they at least have the option to follow through is key. Therefore, tipping scores even slightly has real-world implications. Rozek said, “you can imagine students who are failing science courses maybe can’t even register for additional science courses.”
Barnard College President Sian Leah Beilock, a nationally recognized cognitive scientist who studies the pressures children face in school says, “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.” No matter what, anyone can benefit from expression and reappraisal in high-stress situations. So if it works to calm the mind, it’s a good thing!