Stress or Challenge? Attitudes on Test-Taking

In a recent English language high intermediate writing class, we were working with a New York Times article by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman on “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?”  As I reread the article in preparation for our discussion, it occurred to me how personally relevant the topic was for my students, even though they were no longer “kids,” but rather had their eyes set on graduate school.  As part of that process, they had all been in the throes of test prep, eyes glazed over from long nights spent with IELTS, TOEFL and GRE manuals as thick as latter day telephone books. Bronson and Merryman look specifically at the stress invoked by standardized testing.  When I read the passage below, I was immediately reminded of the many iterations of such behavior I had seen performed countless times in the classroom on test days, and at the same time, I could feel the truth of what was being described resonating in my own muscle memory:

If you went to an SAT testing site and could run physiological and neurological scans on the teenagers milling outside the door right before the exam, you would observe very different biomarkers from student to student. Those standing with shoulders hunched, or perhaps rubbing their hands, stamping their feet to get warm, might be approaching what Wendy Berry Mendes and colleagues call a “threat state.” According to Mendes, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, the hallmark of a threat state is vasoconstriction — a tightening of the smooth muscles that line every blood vessel in the body. Blood pressure rises; breathing gets shallow. Oxygenated blood levels drop, and energy supplies are reduced. Meanwhile, a rush of hormones amplifies activity in the brain’s amygdala, making you more aware of risks and fearful of mistakes.

At that same test center, you might see students shoulders back, chest open, putting weight on their toes. They may be in a “challenge state.” Hormones activate the brain’s reward centers and suppress the fear networks, so the person is excited to start in on the test. In this state, decision making becomes automatic. The blood vessels and lungs dilate. In a different study of stress, [Jeremy Jamieson of the University of Rochester] found that the people told to feel positive about being anxious had their blood flow increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute, with more oxygen and energy coursing throughout the body and brain. Some had up to two liters per minute extra.

According to Bronson and Merryman, the research suggests that these divergent responses to pressure are due, at least in part, to genetic factors.  Some of us are born “Warriors,” becoming fired up by the prospect of a challenge, while others are more naturally “Worriers,” who find that competitive situations often sap our powers.  Yet how we manage the hand that nature has dealt us makes all the difference in how we ultimately perform on standardized tests. For those of us who typically find ourselves in the hunched-over posture of “threat state” on test day, Jamieson’s research offers a potential remedy.  When a group of undergraduates were administered a GRE practice test, half of the subjects opened their test booklets to find a note “declaring that recent research suggests ‘people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.’ Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, ‘you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.’  Those who received this message performed significantly better on the exam than the control group.”

So, if you tend to be a “Worrier” like I am, the next time you sit down to take an IELTS or a TOEFL test, just try reminding yourself that a little pressure might actually be good for you!

Read more about how to benefit from your emotions with The Power of Positivity.