By Valerie Lev
By Valerie LevWhy is it that two students who, let’s say, get 80% of their answers correct on a practice exam wind up with very different scores on the actual exam? One student gets a high score on the real ISEE, and the other student gets a mid-range score. The answer can often be blamed on test anxiety.

Test anxiety, to a degree, is normal and, actually, helpful in getting a student “into the zone.” Excessive anxiety, however, can be paralyzing. Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, says, “When students are anxious about how they’ll do on an exam, their worries use up some of their working memory capacity, leaving less of the cognitive horsepower to apply to the task at hand.”

What’s the solution? There are four main ways that students can improve their working memory going into any exam, whether it’s an in-class unit review or a high-stakes standardized test.

1. Be prepared for what to expect on the exam. What is the format of the test? Are there sample questions? Are there any writing portions? What can I study in advance? Are there equations I should memorize? Can I write in the test booklet? How much time will I have? Can I practice the timing?

2. Have a plan of action, an approach, going into the exam. There are many test-taking strategies that good test-takers employ. What are they? Which ones work best for me? Good test takers know what those strategies are. They experiment with different strategies, and they come up with a list of their own. They come “armed” to the test with the tools they need to succeed.

Dr. Beilock worked with a team of researchers to conduct a series of studies on how test anxiety affects test results. Two key findings emerged that can make a big difference. We’ve adapted these findings to meet the needs of our students.

1. Students who reacted to stress by thinking, “I’m so nervous. I’m afraid I’ll fail,” choked. Students who used positive self-talk, “I’m really psyched up. I’m ready to go!” performed better.

We encourage students to write 5 positive statements. We also encourage them to imagine themselves in an exciting place: riding a roller coaster or winning a game, whenever the nervousness kicks in.

2. Students who take about 10 minutes to write down their feelings about the test before they begin, perform better. It’s as if, “I cleaned out my brain. I put those thoughts over there, on the shelf, at least for awhile.”

We encourage students to write down their feelings – anything goes (and spelling/neatness don’t count) – a few days or even the night before the exam. They can reread their list, and then, literally, put the list on a shelf in their room. When they get home, they can tear it up, and throw it away.

Researchers have not found a way to expand working memory, but there are steps students can take to make the working memory they have more efficient, and, in turn, improve their test-taking performance.

Valerie Lev, M.A. Ed, is the founder of and director of Learning Encounters Inc. a tutoring center that teaches children through small group workshops. Learning Encounters is starting it’s 20th year.