Writing & Test Anxiety: An Interview with Dr. Sari Soutor

by Harmony Button

Last week’s WAC email addressed writing in final exam situations, and made some suggestions for teachers as they designed exams. This week’s email takes a look at the student experience of test anxiety when they are faced with writing exam questions.

To help me out with this week’s discussion, I’ve turned to Dr. Sari Soutor, a clinical psychologist on staff at the Waterford School. Listen to our conversation, or check out some of the main tips below:

The Thinking

Although writing can be used as a therapeutic tool to help students express their thoughts and feelings, many students can face a debilitating sense of paralysis when faced with a timed writing event. In order to overcome this feeling of writer’s “block,” students can make use of relaxation techniques and pre-writing exercises. Students who struggle with any issues of perfectionism will also struggle with the writing portion of the in-class exam, because they will want to produce a polished project in one sitting, and won’t see the opportunities for revision and drafting in the context of the exam.


The Application

Relaxation: remind students to take the time to relax, before they begin to think or write. Small movements such as tapping alternate fingers on the left and right hands or even wiggling the toes of the left, then right foot helps to coordinate the two sides of the brain, as well as giving the student something else to focus on for a moment (thus alleviating some of the anxiety experienced upon receiving the exam).

The “Brain Dump” encourage anxious students to turn the test over and “empty out” the details and information that they are worried about losing. This kind of cumulative list of “stuff I know” helps a student begin to form schemas for that information (they see what goes together) and they can refer back to this as their own personal memory “bank” as they work through the exam. This repository of information doesn’t have to be complete in order to help a student remember other information that might fit into it, and it helps students who tend to second-guess themselves, because we know, statistically speaking, that a student’s first “guess” is their best guess.


The Habit

The more we as teachers understand the way that students experience our exams, the better prepared we’ll be to write exams that elicit the best possible performance from our students. We’ll also be better prepared to coach them in ways to navigate the variety of exams and timed-writing events that they’ll experience in their lives.

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