The New York Times has an interesting, long article about a gene associated with how we cope with stress, including how we deal with the stress associated with standardized tests. There is a ton of stuff in the article — too much, really — so I want to unpack it here a bit to help you draw some lessons about how to understand your own reactions to high stakes testing.
The first part of the article details two different genes — and two different enzymes — that can be used to regulate dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains where “we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts.” One enzyme is fast-acting and one is slow-acting. In general, the slow-acting one is better at regulation, and those whose genes produce this enzyme tend to be better students, better planners, etc. On the other hand, the fast-acting one is better at coping with the flood of hormones that happens in stressful situations. People with the fast-acting enzyme are energized by stress and competition and require the enhanced stimulation to remain engaged enough to perform well. Those with all slow-acting enzymes are dubbed “worriers”: folks who study hard, do well, but fall apart on standardized tests (without intervention). Those with the fast-acting enzymes are dubbed “warriors”: students who thrive on competition, and may be mediocre students who outperform expectations in high-stakes settings. Most of the population has both genes (one from each parent) and therefore may have a blended response.
Can you tell which group you fall into?
The key to worriers mastering their debilitating stress response is practice. If you become inured to the stresses of a test day experience, your impressive cognitive skills and steady approach can be brought to bear on the test, smashing it to smithereens. There are three principles to keep in mind as you search for ways to gain experience:
- Don’t identify with your stress response (i.e. “I’m just a bad test taker”): you can change that response to something more experienced and constructive.
- Make sure something is at stake when you set up practice test experiences: try to mimic the context of the test center, but also find a way to put something on the line. Some ideas are to enlist a friend to ensure that you donate money to a cause you hate if your practice test results fall below an appropriate goal — and use the money instead to buy yourself a fun night out or donate to a cause you love if you succeed in your goal. Another avenue is to make your results public in some way (though not in a way that future employers can find in a google search!) Think about starting a blog, or using your favorite social media vehicle to set goals and then report your progress. In particular, some thing bad needs to happen if you fall short, though it should be proportionate to your experience level. If you currently fall apart when you take a test, have the stakes be low (but not zero) to start with and increase them as you get more comfortable.
- Every time you have a high-stakes event — practice or real — spend some time in advance thinking about the good things that come out of the experience regardless of the results (the experience, the social connections, learning, etc.) and some time afterwards ensuring that something good does come out of the experience.
Once you have blunted your worry reaction to high stakes tests, all the benefits of your genes can come back into play.
Warriors are less likely to even be reading this blog, since they thrive in high stakes testing situation. The big drawback for the warrior is that you might not have developed the cognitive skills that will shine — if you have them — when boosted by stress. The challenge for you will be to spend enough focused time studying to build a solid foundation for test-day performance. The strategies you can use to work with your brain, rather than against it (i.e. by boring yourself to tears through shear willpower) are:
- Turn everything into a contest. If you have some like-minded study buddies, you guys can set up friendly competitions (but be sensitive if there is a worrier in your midst). Or you can compete against yourself. Everyone should be tracking their study progress, and you should be using those stats to win something if you meet your goals.
- A subtle difference between worrier competitions and warrior competitions is that warriors are thriving on the high of competition, rather than inuring themselves against the fear of consequences, so you want to try to amp up the high by focusing more on positive rewards, though those positive rewards should be tied to real stretches in your abilities. If you aren’t falling short with some degree of regularity, you are not setting yourself a big enough challenge.
If you can turn your studying into as big a thrill as the test-day, you are going to find yourself with a much stronger set of cognitive skills to play with for the real thing.
The article goes into a bunch of other interesting research into stress in high stakes testing situations, but I’m going to save that for the next post.