CHICAGO -- Today's teens know well the alphabet soup of high-stakes tests -- the SATs, the ACTs, the APs and the flurry of finals at the end of every semester.
But they might not know about a proven new tactic to ease their anxious nerves on test day and even boost their scores.
A team of University of Chicago psychological scientists found that high school and college students who jotted down their worries for 10 minutes before exam time avoided choking under the pressure. In fact, they performed markedly better.
In a study released Thursday in the journal Science, Sian Beilock and Gerardo Ramirez measured the test anxiety of a class of high school freshmen six weeks before their final exams, tests that would be foundational to the academic transcripts they would ultimately send to colleges. On exam day, they asked half the class to write down their concerns about the upcoming test while other students wrote about an unrelated topic.
To a teen, students who had the worst case of test nerves scored as well as their more relaxed classmates even when accounting for grades during the school year. The average score improved almost an entire grade, going from a B minus to a B plus, results show.
The professors repeated the experiment a year later with the same results.
"It's getting negative thoughts and worries down on paper that seems to be the benefit," said Beilock, an associate professor and author of "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To."
The idea is to clear the working memory -- sort of a mental scratch pad in the brain -- of worries that interfere with the cognitive resources needed for the task at hand. Beilock likens it to a computer with two dozen programs running at once.
Committing concerns to paper seems to clear all that away, setting up teens to earn top scores when it most counts.
"There's lots of stress in terms of getting the right marks, getting the right grades to excel," Beilock said. "The nice thing here is students can write on their own."
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