Can you spare 10 minutes to cut failure rate in half? : Brain Bites

Can you spare 10 minutes to cut failure rate in half?

by Janet Zadina on 01/25/19


Lower income high school freshman biology students improved their success rate and reduced the gap between lower income and higher income students with a 10 minute intervention prior to test-taking.  As reported in a very important journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers Leah Beilock and her team at Barnard College found that strategies to reduce stress prior to an exam reduced the performance gap.

I think educators know that it isn’t just what students know, but also how effectively they can take a test that can affect achievement.  Anxiety, stress, and trauma can affect test-taking performance.  Although all economic groups can have stress, it appears that lower income students may also have performance anxiety in STEM classes that affect their scores.  

The intervention used by these researchers could be adapted to better work with schedules and for other courses.  First, let’s look at what they did. They randomly put 1200 freshmen into one of four groups. Students wrote for 10 minutes prior to the test on one of the following, depending upon group assignment.

  1. Expressive writing:  writing openly about their feelings about the test

  2. Reappraisal:  Students read a brief passage about how stress affects the body (fast heartbeat, sweaty palms, etc) and that it was the body’s way of preparing them for something important.  They wrote a summary of this.

  3. Both of the above

  4. Control group: summarizing a passage instructing them to ignore their stress

For low-income students, any of the tasks 1-4 improved test scores significantly.  But more dramatically, these interventions increased the passing rate for lower income students from 61% to 82%. Researchers conclude that two 10-minute interventions during the year significantly reduced failure rate in low income students in STEM classes.


To adapt this, I think the same effects could be achieved without doing it right before the test.  As a teacher, I know that we don’t always have that amount of time. I think that doing this early in the semester during a class period could have a similar effect.  Then perhaps devote one minute of writing for them to recall key points of what they have learned.

I think this would help in any course, not just STEM.  Many students have performance anxiety on top of other kinds of anxiety.  I am surprised to see that this didn’t help as much with high-income students as research shows they can have even higher levels of performance anxiety.  Perhaps it was the fact that low income students may feel they do not belong in STEM classes, so it applied more to that, whereas the higher income students in STEM classes may have had more confidence.  This needs to be parsed out in future research.

I am currently working on a new workbook for students that would take a few minutes a day (in class or as an assignment) periodically to address anxiety, stress, and trauma and the impact on learning.  I hope to have that ready for fall semester. In the meantime, you can do something similar to this intervention. I suggest doing each of the first 3 maybe two weeks apart as your schedule permits.

Educators need to prioritize emotional factors in school as well as content.  Professional development on the nature and impact of anxiety, stress, and trauma is critical.  Trauma-sensitive classrooms enhance the learning of all students. For more information on this, check out the free resources on my Butterfly Project at .  Additional free resources are available on my web page at .  For professional development on this topic for your faculty check out .  Contact me at or reply to this email for more information.

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Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction

Science and Strategies
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction
Bridging Neuroscience and Education​

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