CHAMPAIGN, III. — Taking exams in college can be grueling on the mind for undergrads, leading many to feel spikes in anxiety as they study — which consequently causes them to do worse on the tests. Studies have shown that as many as 41 percent of college students suffer from test anxiety.

Now a new study finds that social media may help lower anxiety of students before exams, with “likes” and private messages actually having a calming effect that allows them to concentrate at ease.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that undergraduates with high levels of test anxiety were able to reduce symptoms by 21 percent for a simulated exam when they reached out to friends on social media for support, and then read the encouraging messages they received back.

Student taking notes or exam
A new study finds that college students who receive support from friends on social media before an exam have lower anxiety levels.

As it turned out, students were able to perform as well as peers with low anxiety when they took the test. This has a positive effect on grades and GPA: when students aren’t so nervous, they simply perform at higher levels.

For the study, researchers recruited a group of computer science or computer engineering majors who had basic programming knowledge. The students’ anxiety levels were assessed with the Cognitive Test Anxiety scale, which identifies the prevalence of cognitive problems linked to test-taking.

They students also completed questionnaires that measured their “state” anxiety — which is anxiety they feel at a specific moment, the exam in this case — and their “trait anxiety,” which is anxiety they generally and is considered part of the person’s personality.

A day before taking the quiz, the students were assigned to post messages on their social media profiles seeking encouragement from friends — be it through likes, private messages, or leaving comments on the status — for a computer programming challenge they’d be taking.

On exam day, the researchers split the students into three groups — a social support group, an expressive writing group, and a control group. Seven minutes before the test, those in the social support group were told to read the messages on social media left for them, while those in the expressive writing group had to write about how they felt. Students in the control group were given seven minutes to cram by studying a text and then answering questions about it.

.At test time, participants had to complete a questionnaire checking their state anxiety levels, and then they had 40 minutes to solve two programming problems that required them to write and run code.

The results were quite conclusive.

“We found that only the students who received supportive messages from their Facebook network showed a significant decrease in anxiety and an increase in their performance on our simulated exam,” says lead author Robert Deloatch, a graduate student in computer science, in a university news release.

Surprisingly, the researchers determined that typically low-anxiety students in the expressive-writing group saw an increase in nerves ahead of the exam by — 61 percent. Past research suggests that expressive writing helps relieve test anxiety.

“We hypothesized that might have occurred because focusing on their anxiety as they wrote caused their apprehensiveness to increase rather than decrease,” says Deloatch.

When it came to students who showed high test anxiety levels, the researchers found those students had lower self-esteem and were far more easily distracted during the exam. They also had an intense fear of performing poorly. Deloatch and his team believes the symptoms could resurface for other important career-building steps like job interviews — and that turning to social media for support could similarly help a prospective employee.

One observation Deloatch made when it came to the students asking for support on social media: “all of them were uncomfortable with soliciting support from their online friends, perceiving such posts as ‘attention seeking’ and ‘out of place. As the majority of the participants in our study were computer science students, the competitive environment of the curriculum may have led to concerns about how others would perceive them. They may have felt that such statuses could harm their relations in group project settings.”

The study is being published in the Proceedings of CHI 2017, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, held May 6-11 in Denver.

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