The Power of Positive Recollections: Reducing Test Anxiety

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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.
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
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Donna Webster Nelson,
Department of Psychology, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC 29733. E-mail: [email protected]
Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2010, 40, 3, pp. 732–745.
© 2010 Copyright the Authors
Journal compilation © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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).
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
These outcome measures were utilized as indicators of enhanced coping.
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.
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
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.
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-
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
Test anxiety
Score on pop quiz
Control (N = 56)
Note. All ps < .01. The highest possible score on the pop quiz was 15.
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
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
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).
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
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.
on pop quiz
Test anxiety
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
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
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
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
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