Most people think good test prep means a solitary focus on academic content and skills. Reading comprehension, vocabulary, math concepts, grammar, and essay writing are where the majority of test prep programs spend their time. The good ones will also focus on test structure, format, and strategies. What is missing from many programs, however, is one of the most important elements of all…stress and anxiety management. The great prep programs realize that without this component, all of the hard work dedicated to the aforementioned areas is a waste of time…or at least hinders potential success.
Let’s talk about the science.
The hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for memories and emotions, is significantly impacted by long term or extreme stress. As I mentioned in a previous blog post for Launch Education Group (launcheducation.com), short term, moderate stress can have an advantages effect on brain function, but chronic stress can severely impact brain performance. It has been proven that during times of anxiety, the hippocampus actually shrinks due to stress hormones. In other words, the part of the brain whose function is to recall information from memory is inhibited by stress.
Imagine a concert pianist, despite months of practice, who loses a finger just before a sold out performance…or an NBA player who shrinks 6 inches during the playoffs. These would be obvious catastrophes that are seen and therefore the impact on performance would be understood. What we don’t realize is that similar unseen deficits occur mentally for those who experience extreme stress. The actor who forgets his lines despite hours of perfect rehearsals? We call it “stage fright,” and it is caused by a stress induced mental block. What could cause a student to experience high levels of stress while taking an exam?
Well, let’s see:
1. The college entrance exam is considered one of the most important pieces of a college application.
2. Many parents put unnecessary pressure on their kids because exam performance, and resulting college admission, proves their success as parents.
3. The social stigma among peers about actual scores.
4. Personal expectations teens place on themselves based on external pressures.
5. The realization that four years of hard work in school can be foiled by one poor morning performance.
So what can be done to ensure that a student is mentally, physically, and emotionally ready for an exam? There are some very basic tools, as well as some novel approaches.
The best tutors will always incorporate the following into their programs:
- Multiple practice tests – the more familiar a student is with the format and structure of the exam, the better. Some anxiety derives from students experiencing something they have never seen before (the fear of the unknown).
- Mirror talk – there is much evidence showing that talking to yourself in the mirror gives the message a lasting effect due to the visual and auditory input. Giving yourself a pep talk in the mirror helps your mind understand the expected outcome.
- Relaxation techniques – Breathing and physical exercise may sound cheesy, but they really work. Any person about to enter a stressful situation should take deep breaths and exhale slowly, massage the space between the thumb and forefinger, or crunch the toes for 30 seconds and release. All of these have been proven to relax the body, and therefore the mind.
- Visualization – This is especially helpful for students with distractibility issues. This means creating a meditative state where you actually visualize in your mind answering questions correctly on the test. You reduce stress by thinking about the expected positive outcome and turn it into a realization.
Don't Knock it Until You Try it
While I recognize that some of these suggestions might be simple or cheesy, you’d be surprised how little they are utilized, yet how effective they really are. Even if your stress is not test related, employ these strategies during a stressful situation and you will see what an amazing impact they can have on mental performance. College entrance exams are of high importance, and therefore high stress. Preparing mentally, physically, AND emotionally is the only way to be completely confident that you have done everything possible to maximize your test success.