Help Your Students Score Higher on Your Upcoming BIG Tests

Can Relevant Research Help Your Students Score Higher on Your Upcoming BIG Tests?

Let’s focus on something I ordinarily NEVER focus on: testing. As much as I dislike the types, timing, policies, content and uses of existing state and national tests (is there anything I left out?), the reality is, we’d rather our students get higher than lower scores.

I’ll focus on three things that can help your students improve their chances to score up to their potential.

By the way, kids never score above their potential; they’re just not going to randomly make enough lucky right answers time after time after time. (In statistics, it’s called regression to the mean.) But, they often underperform for a host of reasons, even when they should perform much better.

While we could focus on dozens of variables that influence standardized testing, we’ll focus on 1) brain chemistry 2) priming and 3) episodic memory triggers.

Brain Chemistry and Testing
There are three chemicals to focus on for optimal testing results: 1) dopamine (It generally facilitates informational transfer within limbic and cortical networks to promote working memory and reward-seeking behavior, says Luciana, et al. 1998), 2) noradrenaline (It generally promotes a more narrowed focus, sharper attention and improved memory. This system plays a specific role in the regulation of cognitive functions, including sustained attention, working memory, impulse control, and the planning of voluntary behavior.), and 3) glucose (It provides short term energy and, in low to moderate doses, promotes enhanced memory. (Krebs DL, Parent MB., 2005.)

The Power of Priming and Positive Suggestion
Can you influence testing outcomes by “prepping” their brain for success? It has long been proposed that motivational responses that were subtle could serve as priming to affect academic performance. A recent study showed that yes, priming can help students do better. You can prep the brain several ways. One is by showing and asking the students to write them the letter “A” in advance in a certain way. We’ll tell you “how” in a moment. The other one of our two “prepping” strategies is to give peppermints to all kids for your final review, then use peppermints again at the time of the big test (Barker, et al. 2003.) This raises attentional levels and provides glucose for learning and memory.

Location of the Test Itself
We feel stressed when we are in a novel location. Not surprisingly, stress impaired memory when kids were assessed in an unfamiliar surrounding, but not when assessed in the original learning location. (Schwabe L., and Wolf OT., 2009.) In short, if your students can’t be in the test-givers room to learn the material, at least bring them into the testing room and do a review in that room days before the event.

In the paragraphs above, we’ve offered three “angles” for improving the testing outcome. First, the science is solid when you consider each strategy separately. But combined, these strategies may help you get to the next level. The chef, Emeril, would say they could give you “BAM!”… Power.

Let’s “flesh out” each of the studies from above. The first category is about enhancing brain chemicals.

This is fairly easy to do.

Dopamine can be strengthened by: 1) voluntary gross motor repetitive movements, like marching, relays, playing a game, 2) enhanced by strong positive feelings like reunions and celebrations, and 3) enhanced by looking forward to something very good.

Norepinephrine is enhanced by: 1) risk, like a student speaking in front of his/her peers, 2) urgency, like serious deadlines for compelling task, and 3) excitement, like theater, competition, comedy, the arts.

Glucose is enhanced by: 1) food sources, complex carbos are best, but almost any source can do in a pinch, 2) physical activity (glucose is stored in the liver, in the form of glycogen, and released in the form of glucose), and 3) any time we are experiencing emotions.

Here’s how to use the power of suggestion. You can influence testing outcomes by “prepping” their brain for success with a positive suggestion. Sound like Star Trek “Vulcan” Mind Control? Or, is it more of the “Obi Wan Kenobe” effect? It’s neither. It has long been proposed that motivational responses that were subtle could serve as priming to effect academic performance.

The research study I mentioned was conducted at a large research university in the USA.

Here is what they started with:

23 undergraduates in Group 1 (were conducted in classroom settings)
32 graduate students in Group 2 (were conducted in classroom settings)
76 undergraduates in Group 3 (were conducted in laboratory setting)

The “mind games” manipulation came in the form of a phony answer key identification code. This study used a “Test – Bank ID code” (completely phony) on the front cover of a test. The ID Code was needed because participants were prompted to view and write it on each page of their test. The letters used were “A” (the positive priming for group 1) “F” (the negative priming for group 2) and “J” (the neutral, control group 3). Students who got and used the “A” on their ID Code outperformed BOTH the “F” on the code and the “J” control group. Students are vulnerable to evaluative letters presented before a task, these results support years of research highlighting the significant role that our nonconscious processes play in achievement settings.

The next study I mentioned with priming and positive suggestion used peppermint odor during simple skill practice, performance, memorization, and alphabetization. Participants completed the protocol twice–once with peppermint odor present and once without. Analysis indicated significant differences in the gross speed, net speed, and accuracy on the task, with odor associated with improved performance. The study results suggest peppermint odor may promote a general arousal of attention, so participants stay focused on their task and increase performance.

Next, use location of the test itself as an advantage.

As we said earlier, changes in rooms can induce stress. Undue stress before “the big” test impairs memory, whereas memory performance is enhanced when the learning context (location) is reinstated at retrieval (testing) time. As a general rule, low to moderate stress is best for encoding and retrieving. It is best to match the encoding (original learning) and retrieval (test situation) stress level.

I have always advocated that we ensure that students taking a test take it in the room in which they studied for it. That’s the power of episodic or context memory. But there’s more to it. Stress is an issue, too. The study examined whether the negative impact of stress before memory retrieval can be attenuated when memory is tested in the same environmental context as that in which the learning took place. These results suggest that the detrimental effects of stress on memory retrieval can be abolished when a distinct learning context is reinstated at test time.

Stress impaired the student’s memory when assessed in the unfamiliar context, but not when assessed in the learning context (Schwabe L., and Wolf OT., 2009.) In short, if your students can’t be in the official test-taking room for the big test to learn the material, at least bring them into the testing room prior and do a review in that room a few days before the event.

Remember, you can also combine all three of the strategies above for Positive Synergy.

And now, a BONUS! Here’s what to do after the interim tests (but before the big “Standards Tests”). We know that reflection and meta thinking can be powerful. Debbie Barber, a sixth grade teacher at Ackerman Middle School in Canby, Oregon says, “My kids have a chance to improve their scores by doing a test autopsy. They correct their mistakes and then write a half page reflection on why they did so poorly and what they should have done differently. They earn a half point for each corrected answer. Not only do the parents love it, the test scores have improved and the students are really taking ownership of their work!”


Barker S, Grayhem P, Koon J, Perkins J, Whalen A, Raudenbush B. Improved performance on clerical tasks associated with administration of peppermint odor. Percept Mot Skills. 2003 Dec;97(3 Pt 1):1007-10.
Arnsten AF. Through the looking glass: differential noradrenergic modulation of prefrontal cortical function. Neural Plast. 2000;7:133–46. [PubMed]

Ciani KD, Sheldon KM. (2010) A versus F: the effects of implicit letter priming on cognitive performance. Br J Educ Psychol. Mar;80(Pt 1):99-119.

Fulkerson, F. E.; and G. Martin. 1981. Effects of exam frequency on student performance, evaluations of instructor, and test anxiety. Teaching of Psychology; April, 8(2): 90-93.
Krebs DL, Parent MB. (2005) The enhancing effects of hippocampal infusions of glucose are not restricted to spatial working memory. Neurobiol Learn Mem. Mar;83(2):168-72.
Luciana, M., Collins, PF and RA Depue (1998) Opposing roles for dopamine and serotonin in the modulation of human spatial working memory function Cerebral Cortex Volume 8, Number 3, Pp. 218-226.
Schwabe L, Wolf OT.(2009) The context counts: congruent learning and testing environments prevent memory retrieval impairment following stress. Cogn AffectBehav Neurosci. Sep;9(3):229-36.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Nate Kay

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