Test Prep and the Brain

I’m coming off a particularly stressful week. You know how that goes – the ebbs and flows of life. I began to really pay attention to how much the added stress and anxiety negatively impacted all areas of my life. It messes with attention, confidence, resiliency, and so on. Due to my own heightened awareness, I was particularly sympathetic to how much stress/fear/anxiety/whatever you want to call it affected a young man who came to our office last week to take the SSAT. That got me thinking about how much test anxiety is responsible for lowering standardized test scores.

The day a student takes a test such as the SAT is often an intimidating one. Small slip ups can have drastic effects on confidence levels which, in turn, decrease scores. Our tutor John just began working with a student in Vienna who had recently taken the SAT for the first time after reviewing some practice tests on his own. The student got halfway through the first math section, came to a problem involving an inverse relationship, and forgot what an inverse relationship was. The student later related that he got so hung up on the fact that he couldn’t remember this simple concept that it was in the back of his mind for the rest of the test. The result: His first SAT score was actually lower than what his PSAT score had predicted the year before.

We often get phone calls from parents whose students recently took the SAT after self-directed practice and froze up on test day. While self-directed preparation certainly works for some students, it is not the most productive rout for most.

Test Prep Anxiety

At the most basic level, the human brain can be split into two parts: the reptilian brain and the neocortex. The reptilian brain processes emotions, instinctual urges, and the “fight or flight” response. The test anxietyneocortex, which is unique to humans, processes rational thought and logical reasoning. While both parts of the brain serve their own very important purposes, they are not so great at working simultaneously.

When the reptilian brain is activated, activity in the neocortex shuts down. Learning, logic, and reasoning become of secondary importance to survival. And there is one thing that is predominantly responsible for activating the reptilian brain: fear.

When humans are afraid, nervous, angry, frustrated, or worried that their inability to remember what an inverse relationship is will prevent them from getting into college, the reptilian brain activates and stress hormones are released.

Essentially, much of the function of the brain is rooted in the needs of our ancestors of thousands of years ago. When early humans were confronted with a predator such as a saber-toothed cat, deciding on your options and then weighing the pros and cons of each would have gotten you killed before you decided what option number two even was. Instead, you run or fight. Simple as that. In moments of stress, the brain automatically inhibits logical reasoning and relies on instinct. As you can see, this isn’t the best recipe when it comes to doing well on a test such as the SAT which is based in logical reasoning. (As a digression, how the brain, which is hardwired for survival, deals with the stresses of modern day living is a fascinating topic.)

Managing Test Anxiety

By minimizing stress and nerves as much as possible when preparing for the SAT, ACT, or SSAT, students learn more, retain more, and increase their rate of progress. Obviously, there is an entire industry devoted to stress management, but here are a few ways to take what we know about our brains to get the most out of test prep.

1.) Start with what you already know.

While it is important to focus on your weaknesses to maximize test prep results, you always want to begin from a place where you’re comfortable. For example, if you’re trying to tackle the concept of misplaced modifiers, you should probably make sure you’re able to do some basic sentence diagramming. Even before that, you should make sure you know the parts of speech.

2.) Focus on the positives.

Instead of dwelling on how much you don’t know, focus on what you already know. There is a great deal of compelling research into the effects of positive thinking on performance. Remember that your opportunities to learn far outweigh your deficiencies.

3.) Review.

Repetition is key to retention. Every time you learn a new concept in your test prep, practice it, review it, practice it, review it, repeat. In addition to improving retention, doing this will make you more comfortable, reducing your stress levels.

4.) Take practice tests – lots of them.

Doing well on the admissions tests is just like any other skill. It requires a ton of practice. By taking a full length practice test every three weeks you will not only get in valuable content and strategy practice (provided that you review your results), but you will also practice in simulated testing conditions. Students who don’t take multiple practice tests before the real thing often deal with fatigue, attention issues, anxiety, etc. I guarantee that putting yourself through multiple practice tests will leave you better off than the vast majority of the other students in the testing room.

5.) Write away your fears.

Research out of the University of Chicago strongly supports dumping your fears onto paper 5 minutes before taking a test. Studies found that when students spent the few minutes leading up to their test writing out all of their anxieties, they scored better than their peers who did not.

Nobody said test prep is easy. However, you can train to reduce the likelihood that your primal stress responses take over on test day. It all comes down to smart practice and planning ahead.