Search ‘how to do well in IELTS?’ online and you will find a galaxy of results on IELTS strategies. Yet one aspect of test-taking is often overlooked: stress management. You might have performed well in class. You might be very familiar with some of the IELTS question types. You might even have worked through multiple IELTS prep books. Even so, failing to recognise the importance of managing your stress will affect your performance and leave you with a less-than-desirable band score. Let’s look at this scientific study to see why.
Dr Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, studied why people perform badly in stressful situations (such as exams). She found that exam stress takes up your working memory — the part of your mind you use to focus on the questions. As a result, your performance worsens in stressful environments, such as exam centres and interview rooms, compared to less-stressful environments, such as classrooms or at home.
Read the first paragraph of her paper (this is exactly the kind of text you might find in the IELTS Academic Reading test):
‘To develop interventions that help students perform at their best when the pressure is on, you first have to understand why students sometimes perform below their ability in stressful academic situations. My colleagues and I have shown that a diverse set of phenomena – ranging from the negative emotional reaction a female math major might experience when reminded of the stereotype that “women can’t do math” (termed stereotype threat; Steele, 1997), to the acute pressure anyone might feel when taking a high-stakes college admissions test, to the anxiety people with a chronic fear of math experience when sitting in math class — show striking commonalities in the effects they have on cognitive functioning. Specifically, these stressful academic situations reduce the working-memory available to attend to a task’s information processing requirements and to control its execution (Beilock, 2008).’
You can read the full paper here.
So, how can you perform well under stress? I’d like to suggest three solutions.
- Try an activity recommended in the original paper: write out your worries. Beilock’s study shows that writing out your worries ten minutes before taking the test can help you perform better under pressure. What you write is important: it can’t be about any topic (e.g. writing about your day). Instead, it specifically needs to be about what you are worried about in your test. In other words, recognising, acknowledging and writing about your fears will help you to overcome them.
- Do lots of test practice. The more you are familiar with the test environment, the less stress you will feel. Understanding and changing your study habits (e.g. do you listen to music while you study? Or regularly check your phone?) is a great strategy for improving your band score. Try to simulate test conditions by sitting in a quiet room and timing yourself. Ideally, do this with friends who are also taking IELTS to make the situation even more lifelike.
- Make sure you understand what the exam expects of you well in advance. This means looking at the assessment criteria or, at the very least, you really must become familiar with question types and task types in each of the four skills tests. Seeing an unfamiliar task for the first time on test day is guaranteed to raise your stress levels.A good place to start is the Road to IELTS Free Version, here. Click the module you are taking, Academic or General Training. Then, choose a skill (IELTS Reading, IELTS Writing, IELTS Speaking or IELTS Listening) and work through the Starting Out and Advice and Tutorials sections. It will give you critical information about what you will be expected to do in the test.
All three of these measures will help to reduce your stress levels on the IELTS test day. They should improve your performance — and your band score.