Mind Anti-Freeze

I had a Eureka! moment.  You know when you learn something that could have changed the entire trajectory of your life?  I did last night while watching Sian Beilock, a professor at University of Chicago talk about research she completed this year on Nova ScienceNow.  (Her piece is near the end of the show/transcript).

Some people take standardized tests well and others do not.  I am a case study.

My inability to test well determined:

  • The path in K-8 I was in based on IQ testing (no “gifted” program for me).
  • The fact I got straight A’s in a special high school science program involving four community college-level classes – Microbiology, Epidemiology, Genetics, and Botany – yet I could not pass an AP Biology test, thus limiting my career path.
  • The fact I went for a biology degree in college but could not get higher than a C in Biology 101 because the class was 90% determined by multiple choice testing.
  • The fact I took the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) test preparation course 3 times in order to get a barely passing grade to graduate school, and applied only to programs that put little focus on the test scores; hence, I went for a Special Education program that involved an emotionally charged admission essay on my part but not enough real world skill and drive to complete the program.

Sian Beilock’s research shows that if students taking tests spend 10 minutes prior to the test writing about their feelings/emotions (expressive writing), they score across the board a full grade point higher than those students asked to sit for 10 minutes in silence and do nothing before the test.

To summarize, in people who “choke” under pressure (the name of her book Choke) the emotional centers of the brain become overactive and interfere with our ability to get information from the prefrontal cortex where things like math problems and multiple choices are solved.

People who test well, on the other hand, somehow are able to put on hold the emotional centers of the brain for a short time so they do not communicate with the rest of the brain.

Wow.  My life makes so much more sense now.  If I had known this one anti-freeze trick of expressive writing 10 minutes before a test, I am pretty certain I would today be a successful scientist/marine biologist/microbiologist and not a single mom in middle life working a job that requires a high school diploma for 20 years, earning a third more than minimum wage.

Of course test taking is only a small part of life, but it sure is an important ladder to success in our culture.  I am determined to share this research with educators in the hopes students who test poorly while excelling otherwise might be allowed to do expressive writing 10 minutes prior to each test.


About Erin W

A sensitive plant, bamboo strong.
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