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Understanding How the Brain Works to do Well on Tests

Since your brain is your main tool in achieving test success, let’s identify the various parts and how to use them, as explained in The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. The brain is so complex it takes until the mid-20s to mature. It has around 100 billion neurons, each with an average of 10,000 connections to other neurons. When they fire together they grow new connections that rewire the brain throughout our lives: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” This means repeated experiences imprint the brain and we are able to change it. The ability of the brain to change with new stimuli is called plasticity. The lower brain, called the reptilian brain, acts instinctively to keep us safe from danger and controls basic functions such as heart rate and breathing. It developed first in fish. The amygdala, about the size of an almond, is in the mid-brain mammalian or limbic area that records memories that are responsible for our emotions. It processes emotions, especially anger and fear. If it kicks in during a test, we can lose contact with the thinking neocortex. The neocortex behind the forehead developed in primates and has two large cerebral hemispheres united by the corpus callosum nerve fibers. Only a few million years old, the neocortex allowed for human language and culture and is where we need to focus while studying or during tests.

The right hemisphere sees the big picture and is nonverbal but picks up information and emotions. It allows us to communicate as by noticing facial expressions. The left brain develops when we’re around three-years-old and start asking “why?” It is logical and connects thoughts in a linear way to do math or use language. Test-taking is primarily a left hemisphere activity. Mental health is characterized by balance between the two hemispheres. We want to stay centered when an upset occurs rather than feeling like we’re chaotically out of control or going to the opposite pole of rigid control.

The brain stores “implicit memories” that we may not be conscious of, such as Chris taking a test when he was 12 and started to get sick to his stomach. He may not remember the experience but still associates taking tests with feeling bad and doesn’t know why. The hippocampus pulls images and emotions from different parts of the brain like putting together a puzzle that creates an explicit memory that we can work with consciously. If Chris processes his memories of past unpleasant test experiences and makes them explicit, he can use his left hemisphere to take a positive approach and not be thrown off center by old fears.

We want to take a test from the left hemisphere, not letting the amygdala run the show with fear. If someone has test anxiety, the feelings and memories in the right hemisphere need to be acknowledged and brought into awareness. This can be done by writing about the fears in a journal, painting them, or telling a friend your anxious moments test taking. Telling stories helps integrate the two brain functions as the feelings and memories are right hemisphere, while the words and arranging events are left hemisphere. Naming and understanding a fear can deflate its power. Logic can kick in and say, “Now I have new strategies to use to stay calm and focused. I’m focusing on my deep relaxed breathing rather than my fear. I can use my simple tools as by counting from 10 to 1 and use my senses to look around the exam room, or moving the body.”

If the amgdala’s fear kicks in during a test, know that you can change your focus to the frontal cortex. To move attention away from fear, connect with it by naming it and acknowledging it, then redirect your focus by paying attention to your senses. What do you hear? Notice your breathing and take a drink of water. Touch your forehead to remind it to be the boss. Work on cleaning out old negative memories before you take an important test.


How to Deal with Test Anxiety and Stress

I have a lot of experience studying and test taking for my bachelor’s degree, teaching credential, two Masters Degrees, and Ph.D. I wanted to share what I’ve learned with you. Traveling around the world, talking with young people for my book Awesome: How Global Youth Will Transform Our Future I heard how much time and sometimes worry and anxiety goes into studying for the university entrance exam. I wanted to add the advice and experience of young people from various countries, high school and university students, to discover how they excel. We started a Facebook page called Test Success: How to Cope with Stress and Anxiety where we invite you to add your comments and suggestions. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Test-Success-How-to-Cope-with-Stress-and-Anxiety/185582088232378?skip_nax_wizard=true


To take tests well, when studying for a test, quiz yourself on questions you think might be on the test. Find out as much as you can about the form of the examination. Will it be essay or multiple choice?

Study with small groups and take turns quizzing each other, as the best way to learn is to teach. Negative self-talk is an enemy, so post positive messages around your workspace, on your mirror and refrigerator, such as “I am capable of deep concentration to remember what I read. I’m calm and focused when I take a test.” Set realistic goals ad reward yourself for achieving them, as we respond to rewards and praise. You might ask your parents to add to your rewards when you achieve a goal. Give yourself and others more praise than criticism. Look for the positive lessons in a challenging problem. If you didn’t do well, think about what you learned from the experience rather than beating yourself up.

Start with a deep breath from the lower stomach area. Quickly imagine the most calm and perfect place for you, such as a beach, a lake, a mountaintop, or a sand dune. Look at the teacher for a moment to focus and then get started. Read the instructions carefully. Tilt the paper so your head is not bending over in a tired position. Go through the questions and do the easy ones first. When in doubt, go with your first response. Then go back to the question you’re not sure about. If you have time, check over the answers several times before handing in the test.

To improve your test-taking results, be over prepared and avoid cramming. Try to predict test questions as you study and write down answers on study cards. Breathe, relaxing your muscles as you exhale all your air, gently expanding your belly as you breathe in air. Do this at least three times. Always reading the directions completely, nothing point values so you can plan your time. Don’t leave any answers blank, even if you have to guess, unless there is a penalty for wrong answers. In true and false tests, inclusive words like “all” and “always” often flag a “false” statement. There are usually more true than false questions on a test. Longer questions are likely to be correct. Read multiple choice statements noting whether each is a “T” or an “F” so that you can respond to an “all of the above” choice (these are likely to be true).

During the test, if you feel anxious, take deep breaths, visualize getting your test back with an “A,” imagine an invisible wise person helping you, or use positive self-talk. Tense and relax your feet, ankles, calves, and other muscles.

Also see interviews with teens globally. http://www.youtube.com/user/TheGlobalyouth


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