Do you do great on homework and essays, but freeze up on exams? Do you have nightmares about the SAT? Two recent articles in The New York Times and Time magazine address this common malady, and they have some interesting advice on how to bring your nerves under control.
Thinking about test anxiety.
Advice from the Time magazine article “Relax, It’s Only A Test,” by Annie Murphy Paul (Feb. 11, 2013)
1. Engage in “expressive writing.” Spend ten minutes before the exam writing about your thoughts and feelings. This helps you cast off your anxiety and focus on the task at hand.
2. Do a “values-affirmation exercise.” Choose something that’s important to you – for example, music, family, religion, anything – and write about why it matters to you. Research has found that minority and female students who did this improved their test-day performance.
3. Write down positive statements, self-affirmations or mantras and keep them in a handy place. The article describes how girls at the Laurel School in Ohio were given “special test-day pencil[s],” which were wrapped in pieces of paper that contained encouraging (and true) statements such as, “Girls get higher grades than boys.”
4. Make sure you’ve prepared for the test the right way! It may not be enough to read and re-read your notes and books – you should also take practice tests, ask yourself questions about the material, and try to predict what’s going to be on the exam.
5. Do relaxation exercises, such as yoga. The article describes how third-graders who were taught breathing and relaxation exercises showed a significant reduction in test anxiety.
Advice from The New York Times article, “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (Feb. 6, 2013)
This article’s a bit more scientific and complex. Its basic premise is:
Understanding their propensity to become stressed and how to deal with it can help children compete. Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed, and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition — it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind.
The article talks about the COMT gene, which has two variants: one that slowly removes dopamine from the brain, and another that clears it quickly. People carry one variant or the other, or a combination of the two. Studies have found that under normal conditions, those with the slow-acting variant have a cognitive advantage. However, in stressful situations – e.g., test time – the people with the slower enzyme can’t remove dopamine fast enough, and those with the speedier kind take the lead. They’re often the ones who do better on tests.
Some researchers have labeled those with the fast-acting enzyme “Warriors” and those with the slower variant “Worriers.” One isn’t necessarily better than the other, it’s just that the Warriors may have an advantage in situations such as tests. About half of us are a mix between Warrior and Worrier, while a quarter carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter are Worrier-only.
So are we all predestined to be good or bad test takers, based on our genes? Researchers say it’s not that simple. People who are Worriers can significantly improve their performance if they are exposed to stress the right way and allowed to acclimate to it. Based on their research, here are some more ways you can become a grade-A test-taker:
1. Tell yourself that stress is beneficial. It may sound weird, but it works! Here’s an interesting tidbit from the article:
The first experiment was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Before taking a practice test, the students read a short note explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, “you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”
Just reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. They scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test. Remarkable as that seemed, it is relatively easy to get a result in a lab. Would it affect their actual G.R.E. results? A couple of months later, the students turned in their real G.R.E. scores. Jamieson calculated that the group taught to see anxiety as beneficial in the lab experiment scored 65 points higher than the controls. In ongoing work, Jamieson is replicating the experiment with remedial math students at a Midwestern community college: after they were told to think of stress as beneficial, their grades improved.
The study found that the students were still stressed, but that “it had different physiological manifestations and had somehow been transformed into a positive force that drove performance.” The researcher also found that “the people told to feel positive about being anxious had their blood flow increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute, with more oxygen and energy coursing throughout the body and brain. Some had up to two liters per minute extra.” Amazingly, hearing that stress is beneficial can improve your cognitive function!
2. “Inoculate” yourself to stress by engaging in competitive activities you might actually enjoy, such as math competitions, trivia contests, spelling bees, science fairs, chess teams, etc. Although these things can be stressful, they can also be fun and rewarding. And getting used to competition will make it easier to take tests.
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