Do you bomb standardized tests?  Maybe you are smarter than you think!

How To Fool Your Brain Into Helping Instead Of Hindering

Photo by H. Hutchinson
I learn by going where I have to go.~ from “The Waking,” Theodore Roethke (1953)

My book group has been reading Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to (2010) by Sian Bielock. Although many of her examples are from the competitive sports world, there is still something here for those of us that have problems with mental competitions like standardized tests.  And one of her more interesting assertions is that being smarter might make testing harder for you. Keep reading for both why this happens and what to do about it.

Bielock’s premise is this:  you have two types of memory, procedural and working.

Working memory is a bit like a computer buffer, where you put the stuff you have to remember and you anticipate accessing in the very near future.

Procedural memory is defined as “implicit or unconscious” and can be honed by practicing until your practice itself is perfect, so that you can perform under pressure even when the stakes are high. This is sometimes referred to as “muscle memory” in sports, like knowing exactly where to swing your golf club or where to place your leg when you kick in tae kwon do. (Bielock further distinguishes procedural memory from “explicit memory,” an underpinning for our ability to reason.)

“Working memory” is defined as “cognitive horsepower” found in the prefrontal cortex.   It’s literally what you are holding in your mind aka “the buffer zone.” (My words, not hers.)  It’s what lets you remember a telephone number while you are still looking for a pen and paper to write it down.  Intuitively, you would think that having more cognitive horsepower would help in a high-pressure test situation but that’s not necessarily true.  Other factors come into play.

Instead, having a bigger working memory can cause you to bomb standardized tests. Especially if you clutter up your working memory with bad thoughts like “I’m not smart enough” or what she calls the “stereotype threat,” such as  “Girls aren’t good at math” or “Boys aren’t good with words.” Now you’ve used up that useful buffer zone with stressful thoughts that quite literally take up the space you could otherwise use for cognitive activities like answering questions on a test.

So, what’s a person to do? Here are just a few of the tips from Bielock’s book:

  1. Reaffirm your own self-worth.  Before a big test (or presentation) be confident in your ability to do what’s in front of you.  This may include reminding yourself that you are not defined by a single test score or a single presentation.
  2. Write about it, then forget about it. “Outsource” your worries by writing them down, then disposing of them. Put all those self-doubts out of your mind before tackling your task.
  3. Meditate, to stop obsessing about the negatives. Train your brain to let go of those bad thoughts before they take possession of you. Breathe deeply as you notice the negatives but let them go. Breathing deeply is a simple way to slow down, too, and more oxygen to the brain helps you think better.
  4. Practice under pressure.  Don’t just reread notes for your test or presentation: Actually try it out in circumstances that will be similar to the real event.  This gets you used to what you will truly experience, and that makes it easier to perform when you must.
  5. Reinterpret your own reactions.  For instance, if you are getting sweaty palms, are short of breath, or having any other physiological reaction, “My adrenaline is high because I am ready for this,” rather than “I’m hyperventilating because I am a nervous wreck.”  In this way, you get your body and brain to work for you and not against you.

These are just a few tips that will help boost your confidence so that you perform at your best when it really counts.  Let your body work for you and not against you as you practice these tips and fool your brain into helping instead of hindering.

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