Brain Research on Test Taking Strategies: There is no such thing as a naturally bad test taker — True!

Scientists have mapped the entire human genome and there is no gene for test taking – so no one is naturally bad at it. However, researchers have shown that if a student believes they are a naturally bad test taker or for any other reason fears the test, their brain will engage the fight or flight mechanisms the moment they sit down to take the test.

Here is how Jack Schafer PhD describes the fight or flight mechanism.

In humans, incoming signals from the five senses are directed to the thalamus, often described as the gateway to the brain. The thalamus divides each incoming signal into two separate signals. One signal goes to the limbic system, more specifically the amygdala. The amygdala is the processing center for our emotional responses. The other signal goes to the reasoning parts of our brain in the cortex.

The pathway to the amygdala is shorter than the pathway to the cortex, allowing the amygdala to process the incoming signal first. If the incoming signal matches a previously known threat, the amygdala secretes hormones that trigger the fight/flight response. One function of the fight/flight response is to inhibit the second signal from reaching the cortex, preventing the logical evaluation of the incoming information. The body then goes into automatic response mode.

Here is an example for how the fight/flight response works and why it is so important. If you walk down a road and happen upon a rattlesnake, the normal reaction is to immediately jump out of harm’s way. The amygdala causes this automatic response. Once at a safe distance, you can logically evaluate the snake’s potential threat. This automatic response increases your chances of survival. Had the automatic response not engaged, you would have stood in the road and observed the characteristics of the snake, such as the rattling sound and the shape of the head, and would have logically come to the conclusion that the snake was poisonous, but too late to avoid a snake bite.

Test anxiety is another form of the fight/flight response. Students who know the test material backwards and forwards still might have difficulty recalling the information if they perceive the test as a threat, or have the fear that they are bad test takers. In both of these cases, it is the primary emotion of fear that causes the student’s fight/flight response to engage. This response reduces the student’s ability to engage their cortex to recall and effectively use the information they have learned to answer the questions on the test.

Here are two strategies for overcoming the fight or flight response that produces poor test performance:

  1. Learn to control your fight or flight response. Just before you start a test, tell yourself to calm down and that the test is not a threat. Just telling yourself to calm down actually works because you feel empowered and less threatened. It also causes your cortex to send a signal to your limbic system to dampen the fight/flight response. Remind yourself that you know the material and tell yourself that you are actually happy to have the opportunity to demonstrate what you know; the fight or flight mechanism.
  2. Learn to recognize the signals that you are entering the fight/flight mode. If you start to feel the jitters and a surge of adrenalin, recognize that these are the first signs that your brain is entering the fight/flight mode. Stephen Daugherty PhD, who is one of the leading experts on test taking strategies, suggests that when you find yourself entering fight/flight during a test, the best thing to do is take a short mental time out. Push your chair a few inches away from the desk. Close your eyes or at least take your attention off the test and think about something relaxing. When you feel the jitters and tension go away, remind yourself that you know this material and go back to answering questions on the test.

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