The Power of Positive Recollections: Reducing Test Anxiety
The Power of Positive Recollections: Reducing Test Anxiety and Enhancing College Student Efficacy and Performance Donna Webster Nelson1 and Ashley E. Knight Winthrop University This research sought to develop an intervention (targeting positive emotions and thoughts) as a mechanism for reducing test anxiety and raising confidence and performance in a sample of college students. Participants were randomly assigned to a positive thought task or a control task. Those in the positive-thought condition, who were assigned to write about successful personal experiences, derived several benefits, when compared with control participants who wrote about their morning routines. Specifically, they experienced more positive affect and less negative affect, exhibited a more optimistic outlook, and reported less test anxiety. They were more likely to appraise the quiz confidently, perceiving it as a challenge rather than a threat. Perhaps most importantly, they exhibited superior performance on the quiz. jasp_595 732..745 Life as a college student is often demanding, as students are faced with an array of challenges and potential stressors (Noel, Levitz, & Saluri, 1985). Many of these challenges require significant coping (Bryde & Milburn, 1990), which may precipitate dysfunction and withdrawal from school (Bray, Braxton, & Sullivan, 1999). A notable example concerns coping with frequent evaluations inherent to college coursework. In particular, many students experience high levels of anxiety in relation to tests. Inability to cope successfully with testing stressors may be debilitating. Indeed, test anxiety is thought not only to promote the unpleasant feelings of worry, insecurity, and selfdoubt, but also to impair academic performance (e.g., Hembree, 1988; Sarason, 1984). Chapell et al. (2005) found that higher test anxiety was associated with lower grade point averages for undergraduate and graduate students alike. Student adjustment, coping, and performance are variable and seem to depend on multiple factors. Tendencies to experience positive or negative emotions may have important implications. Fredrickson (1998, 2001), in her broaden and build theory, as well as other theorists (e.g., Aspinwall, 2001; Folkman, 1997; Folkman & Moskowitz, 2000) have argued that positive 1 Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Donna Webster Nelson, Department of Psychology, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC 29733. E-mail: [email protected] winthrop.edu 732 Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2010, 40, 3, pp. 732–745. © 2010 Copyright the Authors Journal compilation © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. POWER OF POSITIVE RECOLLECTIONS 733 emotions may serve as a coping resource for individuals experiencing adversity. Tests of this notion reveal that positive emotions (e.g., joy, contentment, amusement) can help people to recover more quickly from negative emotions (e.g., anxiety; Fredrickson, Mancuso, Branigan, & Tugade, 2000) or fear (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998). Lyubomirsky, King, and Diener (2005) reviewed a multitude of studies suggesting that the frequent experience of positive emotion (e.g., as experienced by happy persons) is associated with multiple indicators of mental health and well-being. Further evidence of the beneficial impact of positive emotion is found in studies linking positive emotions with greater creativity and enhanced problem solving (e.g., Estrada, Young, & Isen, 1994; Isen, 2000). Such a tendency to view challenging problems in a novel or creative way would likely prove beneficial to individuals facing complex stressors. In the context of coping with college challenges, Sinn, Webster, McAdams, and Lively (2001) found that self-reported coping was positively associated with dispositional tendencies toward emotional stability and agreeableness. In contrast, individual tendencies toward depression, anxiety, and hostility have been found to relate negatively to adaptability in a college setting (Klein & Rennie, 1985). A related individual-difference variable of relevance to college adjustment and success is dispositional optimism. Scheier, Carver, and Bridges (2000) described dispositional optimism as a generalized tendency to expect favorable outcomes, as opposed to unfavorable outcomes, even in the face of adversity. Past research has revealed a positive association between dispositional optimism and psychological adjustment (Brissette, Scheier, & Carver, 2002; Scheier et al., 2000), physical health (Abdel-Khalek, 1998), active coping strategies (Aspinwall & Brunhart, 2000), positive affect (Chang & Sanna, 2001), and performance in school (Chemers, Hu, & Garcia, 2001). Differences in self-efficacy seem to play an important role in student outcomes. According to Bandura (1997), self-efficacy is “belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to produce given attainments” (p. 3). Those with high self-efficacy seem to expend greater effort and to persist when faced with challenges or setbacks (Bandura, 1986; Zimmerman, 1989). Furthermore, meta-analytic findings have indicated that self-efficacy is positively linked with academic performance (Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991). It is noteworthy that these results are not merely a reflection of content-specific skills or abilities. In studies that manipulated beliefs about efficacy via false feedback, participants who were given positive expectancies exhibited more flexibility in strategic problem solving and superior performance, as compared to those who were given negative efficacy expectations (e.g., Schunk, 1982, 1983, 1984; Schunk & Cox, 1986; Schunk & Lilly, 1984; Sherbow, 1984). 734 NELSON AND KNIGHT In summary, successful coping with stressors (i.e., those linked to college life) seems to be facilitated by positive affect, optimism, and self-efficacy. An important question concerns the mechanisms whereby these variables exert their beneficial effects. The manner in which a stressor is perceived and appraised may be an important consideration. Lazarus and Folkman (1984), followed by Blascovich and associates (e.g., Blascovich & Tomata, 1996), emphasized the distinction between threat and challenge appraisals in relation to potential stressors. When individuals make challenge appraisals, they assume an optimistic perspective and view the event as providing potential benefit. In such instances, coping resources are perceived to be adequate to meet situational demands. When individuals make threat appraisals, they assume a pessimistic perspective and view the event as creating potential harm. In these circumstances, coping resources are perceived as inadequate, relative to demands. Chemers et al. (2001) found that optimism was linked indirectly to college freshmen’s improved academic performance by promoting challenge (vs. threat) appraisals. Furthermore, self-efficacy was linked to academic performance expectations. Indeed, students who possessed confidence in their abilities expected to perform better, and such expectations were strongly linked to actual performance. The aforementioned findings suggest that possessing tendencies toward experiencing positive affect, optimism, and self-efficacy will facilitate confident appraisals of stressors, proving highly advantageous to college students, who are likely to face demanding circumstances (e.g., tests) on a routine basis. Because those positive tendencies are not a natural part of the psychological makeup of all individuals, an important endeavor may be exploration of possible avenues to enhance such tendencies in all students. Although appraisal of stressors is linked to dispositional factors (e.g., self-efficacy, optimism; Chemers et al., 2001), recent events that have activated positive or negative emotions and thoughts about the self should heavily influence the mindset an individual adopts at a particular point in time. Thus, “priming” of positive emotions and thoughts (relevant to the self) should encourage an optimistic (vs. pessimistic) mindset and more positive expectations about one’s ability to cope with adversity. In the present study, we seek to develop an intervention (targeting positive emotions and thoughts) as a mechanism for enhancing coping with a stressor commonly experienced by students; that is, completion of a “pop quiz.” We hope to reduce test anxiety, raise optimism, enhance favorable performance appraisals, and raise performance on the quiz.2 We expect that focusing on successful personal experiences and positive affect will produce many beneficial outcomes. Specifically, we expect those 2 These outcome measures were utilized as indicators of enhanced coping. POWER OF POSITIVE RECOLLECTIONS 735 individuals in a positive-thought condition, as compared to a control condition, to report more positive affect and less negative affect; a more optimistic outlook in relation to the pop quiz; less test anxiety; more favorable appraisals of the quiz (i.e., greater confidence, higher performance expectations); and superior performance on the quiz. Because prior research (Chemers et al., 2001) has suggested that optimism exerts influence on outcome variables (e.g., performance) by promoting more favorable appraisals of stressors, we expect a two-step mediational model. Specifically, we expect that the positive thought task will lead to more positive affect, less negative affect, greater optimism, and less test anxiety. Those positive outcomes will then lead to more favorable appraisals of the quiz, and the more favorable appraisals of the quiz will lead to superior performance on the quiz. Method Participants Study participants were 118 (77 female, 41 male) introductory psychology students who were told that a pop quiz would be administered to everyone following the completion of a voluntary writing task and a self-report survey. All students volunteered to participate in the writing task and survey, and they received a small amount of extra course credit. Design and Procedure Experimental conditions. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two writing tasks. In the positive-thought condition, the students were asked to write about a past “peak” experience in which they coped with a challenge in a successful manner and experienced feelings of elation, joy, and pride. They were asked to describe their feelings and to explain what the experience meant to them. In the control condition, students were asked to write about their morning routines. Positive and negative affect. Following the writing task, participants were asked to respond to a series of self-report items. First, they indicated on the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988) the extent to which they were currently experiencing a set of positive and negative emotions. All ratings were made on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (very slightly or not at all) to 5 (extremely). Specifically, participants rated the extent to which they felt negative emotions, including 736 NELSON AND KNIGHT distressed, upset, guilty, scared, hostile, irritable, ashamed, jittery, and afraid. Coefficient alpha for this index was .84 in the present sample. Participants also rated their experiences of positive emotions, including interested, excited, enthusiastic, proud, alert, inspired, determined, attentive, and active. Coefficient alpha for the present sample was .87. Appraisal of stressor. Participants were asked to respond to three items designed to tap their appraisals of the upcoming stressor. First, they indicated the extent to which they were confident about the upcoming quiz. They rated how likely it was that they would perform well on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely). In addition, they estimated their likely grades on the quiz, ranging from 1 (score of F) to 5 (score of A). Coefficient alpha for this index was .80. Optimism. The extent to which participants experienced state-like optimism (in relation to the upcoming quiz) was assessed through a set of nine items, which were adapted from the original Life Orientation Test (LOT; Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994). Participants indicated the extent to which they expected the best, found it easy to relax, would look on the bright side, expected things to go wrong (reverse-scored), felt good, did not expect to do well (reverse-scored), did not expect things to work out well (reverse-scored), believed that good things can come from bad experiences, and did not count on good things (reverse-scored). All items were worded to relate specifically to the upcoming quiz. Coefficient alpha for this index was .89. Test anxiety. Participants responded to a set of 20 items adapted from Spielberger’s (1980) Test Anxiety Inventory. The items were modified slightly to tap state-like anxiety in relation to the upcoming quiz. Items assessed thoughts and feelings, such as the extent to which participants would feel uneasy when taking the quiz, the extent to which they expected to “freeze up” during the quiz, and the likelihood that they would have self-defeating thoughts during the quiz. All items were rated on a 4-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very much so). Coefficient alpha for this index was .95. Test performance. Following completion of the survey items, a 15-item pop quiz was administered to the class. Results In order to categorize the types of positive recollections respondents wrote about in the positive-thought condition, two independent raters coded participants’ responses into the following categories: educational accomplishment (n = 19), athletic accomplishment (n = 11), overcoming fear (n = 7), success with a new experience (n = 14), and meeting a personal challenge (n = 11). Interrater reliability was high (88.7% agreement rate), and disagree- POWER OF POSITIVE RECOLLECTIONS 737 ments were resolved through discussion. No significant effects were found for any of the dependent variables as a function of type of positive recollection. To assess our main predictions, the dependent variables were subjected to a series of one-way ANOVAs. The results indicate that students in the positive-thought condition were more likely to report experiencing positive affect (M = 3.18), as compared to the control condition (M = 2.24), F(1, 116) = 51.89, p < .01. In contrast, students in the positive-thought condition were less likely to report experiencing negative affect (M = 1.48), as compared to the control condition (M = 1.93), F(1, 116) = 13.35, p < .01. Students in the positive-thought condition were more likely to report an optimistic attitude (M = 3.23), as compared to those in the control condition (M = 2.50), F(1, 116) = 40.45, p < .01; and experienced less test anxiety (M = 1.70) than did those in the control condition (M = 2.19), F(1, 116) = 15.96, p < .01. Students in the positive-thought condition also expressed a more favorable appraisal of their ability to cope with the stressor, as reflected in performance expectations and confidence. Ratings for those receiving the positive intervention were significantly higher (M = 3.90), as compared to the control condition (M = 3.18), F(1, 116) = 31.22, p < .01. Perhaps of greatest importance, the results indicate that those in the positivethought condition performed better on the quiz (M = 9.55) than did those in the control condition (M = 8.29), F(1, 116) = 9.06, p < .01. These results are summarized in Table 1. In summary, the present findings indicate that those in the positivethought condition—as compared to the control condition—were more likely to experience positive emotions and optimism, and less likely to experience Table 1 Beneficial Effects of Positive-Thought Task Positive thought (N = 62) Positive affect Negative affect Optimism Test anxiety Appraisal Score on pop quiz Control (N = 56) M SD M SD 3.18 1.48 3.23 1.71 3.90 9.55 0.66 0.49 0.52 0.52 0.58 2.16 2.24 1.93 2.50 2.19 3.18 8.29 0.75 0.81 0.73 0.78 0.81 2.40 Note. All ps < .01. The highest possible score on the pop quiz was 15. 738 NELSON AND KNIGHT negative emotions and test anxiety. They also tended to appraise the upcoming stressor with greater confidence, essentially perceiving it as a challenge, rather than as a threat. A particularly noteworthy aspect of the findings is that participants in the experimental condition had superior performance on the quiz, as compared to the control condition. An important question concerns the mechanism whereby the intervention produced this improved performance. We hypothesized that greater optimism and positive affect and less negative affect and test anxiety (expected for participants in the positive-thought condition, relative to the control condition) would improve performance indirectly by creating more favorable appraisals. This mediation model was tested through structural equation modeling (SEM).3 Baron and Kenny (1986) indicated that a variable serves as a mediator when the independent variable has a significant effect on the presumed mediator, the independent variable has a significant effect on the dependent variable, and the mediator has a significant effect on the dependent variable. Furthermore, when the mediator is controlled for, the effect of the independent variable on the dependent variable is no longer significant. To assess mediation in SEM, two models were run, one with the dependent variable regressed on the independent variable and one with all mediation pathways present.4 Structural equation models were created using LISREL 8.8 (Jöreskog & Sörbom, 2006). This technique allows several regression equations to be analyzed simultaneously, and the closeness of fit of the estimated model can be evaluated through several goodness-of-fit statistics. For each model, several goodness-of-fit statistics are reported: chi square; RMSEA (Steiger, 1990); non-normed fit index (NNFI; Tucker & Lewis, 1973); and comparative fit index (CFI). For the chi-square statistic, optimal fit is indicated by a value of 0, and higher chi-square values indicate worse fit. Chi square can be used to make comparisons between nested models. The chi-square statistics of nested models can be subtracted, and the resulting values are distributed in a 3 The full correlation matrix used for SEM is available from the first author upon request. In addition to the two models discussed, several other models were tested. These include a model with the order of mediators reversed, condition predicting appraisal predicting positive affect, negative affect, optimism, and test anxiety and these predicting quiz performance; and a model to test if optimism and test anxiety would mediate the relationship between affect and performance. The alternative models did not fit well. Because these models are not nested with the hypothesized mediation model, the model comparisons are not valid. However, all alternative models had poor model fit (root mean square error of approximation > .120). 4 POWER OF POSITIVE RECOLLECTIONS 739 chi-square distribution with degrees of freedom equal to the difference in degrees of freedom between the two models. Chi square is useful for model comparison; however, it is often biased by large sample sizes, and other fit indexes will be considered. RMSEA is an index of absolute model fit, with smaller values indicating better fit, and a value of 0 indicating perfect fit. For RMSEA, values below .08 indicate acceptable fit. CFI and NNFI are measures of relative fit. They indicate the degree to which a model is superior to a null model, which specifies no covariances between variables. For both CFI and NNFI, values greater than .90 indicate acceptable fit, values greater than .95 indicate close fit, and a value of 1 indicates exact fit (Hu & Bentler, 1999). We ran two models to test a two-step mediation hypothesis.5 The hypothesis stated that the relationship between experimental condition and test scores would be mediated first by optimism, positive affect, negative affect, and test anxiety; and second by appraisals. Specifically, the positive-thought condition would lead to more optimism and positive affect, and less negative affect and test anxiety. In turn, more optimism and positive affect and less negative affect and test anxiety would lead to more favorable appraisals, and more favorable appraisals would lead to better performance on the quiz (Figure 1). For all models, positive affect, negative affect, optimism, and test anxiety were allowed to correlate. This allowed us to assess the impact of each of these variables, independent of any shared variance. The first model includes only a pathway predicting performance on the quiz from experimental condition. This model had poor fit, c2(130) = 360.159, p < .001 (RMSEA = .120, CFI = .938, NNFI = .927). However, the pathway from experimental condition to quiz performance was significant (b = .28, p = .004). The second model included the direct effect from experimental condition to quiz performance and all mediation pathways (see Figure 1). This model had good fit, c2(121) = 200.107, p < .001 (RMSEA = .074, CFI = .979, NNFI = .973), and also fit the data better than the previous model, Dc2(9) = 160.052, p < .001. In the full model, the pathways from negative affect to appraisal and from test anxiety to appraisal were not significant. In addition, when the mediation pathways were introduced, the pathway from experimental condition to quiz performance was no longer significant (b = .12, p = .28). Thus, it appears that the relationship between the positive-thought condition and quiz scores was 5 Because the hypothesized mediation involved two mediators in sequence, a Sobel test or other test of indirect effects was not appropriate. Thus, we examined change in the direct effects as evidence of mediation. 740 NELSON AND KNIGHT Positive affect .72* .25* Negative affect -.39* Condition -.10 Appraisals .35* Performance on pop quiz .76* .58* Optimism -.38* -.15 Test anxiety .12 Figure 1. The mechanism whereby the positive-thought task impacted performance: mediational model. All estimated path coefficients are standardized (*p < .05). mediated by positive affect, optimism, and favorable appraisals. Taken together, this is strong evidence for the two-step mediation process.6 Discussion Identifying mechanisms for enhancing student coping with stressors inherent to college life is an important goal. While a plentitude of past research has suggested that dispositional tendencies toward the experience of positive affect, optimism, and self-efficacy enhance coping, the idea of promoting these strengths in all individuals has received relatively less attention. The present study sought to develop an intervention that would create positive, as opposed to negative emotions and an optimistic (vs. pessimistic) mindset, thereby promoting favorable appraisals of a common college stressor involving a pop quiz. All of those positive outcomes were taken as evidence of enhanced coping, which was expected to promote the final goal of improving performance. Our findings suggest that even those students who do not necessarily have a dispositional tendency to experience positive 6 The present study did not assess dispositional tendencies toward optimism, positive affectivity, or efficacy. Future studies could examine the impact of positive-thought interventions on those low or high in the aforementioned dispositional tendencies. This would provide greater understanding of the interaction between trait-like and state-like manifestations of those variables. POWER OF POSITIVE RECOLLECTIONS 741 emotions or optimism may be helped by situational manipulations designed to raise these tendencies. Those who were randomly assigned to receive the positive intervention, as compared to control participants not only experienced less distress (e.g., less test anxiety, less negative affect), they also experienced more positive, optimistic feelings and were more confident in their ability to cope with the stressor. It was that tendency to appraise the stressor with greater confidence that seemed to account for their superior performances on the pop quiz. It is worth noting that our study did not expressly measure threat appraisals. Rather, we focused on assessing the degree to which positive affect influenced participants’ tendency to appraise the upcoming stressor with confidence. Future studies might investigate the likely possibility that positive affect would decrease perceptions of threat in challenging circumstances. Other profitable lines of future research would be investigations of alternative mechanisms for promoting positive tendencies of relevance to coping and performance of college students. This work would serve many valuable functions. First, it would serve to increase psychologists’ understanding of positive human functioning. A contemporary need has been identified for psychologists to adopt a more positive perspective in relation to explorations of the human condition, focusing on capabilities, potentials, and successes (e.g., Seligman, 2002; Sheldon & King, 2001). Our research demonstrated that students could draw on their own past success experiences as a source of strength, enhancing their efficacy in coping with a current stressor. Research investigating alternate ways to draw on student strengths as a means of promoting successful coping and enhanced classroom performance would add to the rapidly growing domain of positive psychology. Another important outcome of this line of research would involve practical applications. Findings would be relevant to instructors who are concerned with incorporating classroom practices that maximize student growth and learning. Our findings suggest that instructors may do well to consider incorporating brief interventions that draw on student strengths to combat the common and debilitating effects of test anxiety, self-doubt, and pessimism that many students experience and that interfere with learning and performance. References Abdel-Khalek, A. (1998). Optimism and physical health: A factorial study. 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