Reappraising test anxiety in a positive light can improve performance on an upcoming exam, according to findings published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Students who read about the adaptive benefits of stress before taking their math exam reported lower math anxiety and earned higher test scores.

Stress and anxiety are common reactions to evaluative situations like job interviews, public performances, and school exams. But researchers Jeremy P. Jamieson and his team say that stress reactions are not necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it is the cognitive appraisal process — the way a person interprets their stress — that matters.

“The dominant cultural narrative is that stress is unilaterally negative, and the best way to regulate stress is to avoid or reduce it. Often, however, stressors cannot be avoided, and in fact, we would never grow as people or innovate without engaging with stressors. My research seeks to help develop tools that can support active engagement with difficult challenges and encourage individuals to appraise stress as a resource,” said Jamieson, who is an associate professor at the University of Rochester.

The biopsychosocial (BPS) model of challenge posits that the body’s response to performance stress depends on a person’s perceived ability to cope with the situation. When a person feels like their ability to cope does not measure up to the demands of the task, they experience a “threat state”, defined by vascular resistance and reduced blood flow, which hinders their performance. But when a person feels like their ability to cope exceeds the demands, they experience a “challenge state”, involving increased blood oxygen to the brain, which improves their performance.

The BPS model suggests that by reframing the demands of a task and one’s ability to cope, a person can alter their response to a stressful situation. For example, a student taking an exam might rethink their ability to cope by reminding themselves that a racing heart can be a tool that increases oxygen to the brain, supporting performance. Notably, this reappraisal approach does not diminish the stress or try to alleviate it, but rather, changes the way it is interpreted.

Jamieson and his colleagues tested this approach among a group of 93 math students at a community college. The students were between the ages of 18 and 58, and data was collected over two exam days. On the day of the first exam, students completed measures of math anxiety and perceptions of coping resources (e.g., familiarity with the situation, skills, knowledge) and task demands (e.g., effort required, uncertainty) before taking the exam. On the day of the second exam, the students completed the same measures and were then assigned to one of two conditions.

Before they began the second exam, the students either read a scientific article detailing the adaptive benefits of stress during testing situations (reappraisal condition) or read an article instructing that the best way to improve performance before a test is to ignore feelings of stress (placebo condition).

Compared to the placebo group, students in the reappraisal condition reported more coping resources and less math evaluation anxiety from the first to the second exam. Moreover, the reappraisal manipulation appeared to improve test performance — the reappraisal group performed better on the second math test (compared to the first) while the control group did not. Next, mediation analysis revealed that this performance improvement was partly explained by an increased perception of coping resources in the reappraisal group.

Finally, there was some evidence of long-term effects. The reappraisal group earned slightly higher grades at the end of the semester compared to the control group. One possibility, the researchers propose, is that the students may have continued to apply the reappraisal strategy during future exams.

“The clearest takeaway is that stress is not always bad,” Jamieson told PsyPost. Instead of striving to reduce stress in performance situations (e.g., taking an exam, interviewing for a job, etc.), it can also be adaptive to lean into one’s stress responses and use stress to fuel success. In this particular study, students who were taught that their stress responses were functional exhibited improvements on a subsequent exam.”

The authors noted that their findings suggest that math anxiety “may be more malleable than previously believed” as the reappraisal condition weakened students’ math anxiety. Notably, their results suggest a way to improve student outcomes in programs with high failure rates, like remedial math.

“The findings reported here offer hope for improving student outcomes by integrating psychological theory with educational practice. Developmental math students at community colleges face major hurdles … The current research shows that a brief, easily administered set of instructions designed to optimize students’ stress responses can help improve classroom exam performance, which has the potential to increase the passing rates of developmental students,” Jamieson and his colleagues wrote in their study.

They noted that their study was limited since it did not include physiological measures of stress. Future studies could improve on this limitation by taking saliva samples as measures of students’ cortisol levels.

“The major caveat of any stress optimization approach is that up-regulating ‘good’ stress responses is only applicable in motivated-performance situations that present acute demands that need to be addressed,” Jamieson said. “These types of stress regulation approaches should not be applied to chronic, uncontrollable stressors.”

The study, “Reappraising Stress Arousal Improves Performance and Reduces Evaluation Anxiety in Classroom Exam Situations”, was authored by Jeremy P. Jamieson, Brett J. Peters, Emily J. Greenwood, and Aaron J. Altose.

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