Help Your Students Score Higher on Their Upcoming Tests

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You might teach well, but do your students TEST WELL? 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, not 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 guesses 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 just three in this newsletter: 1) brain chemistry,
2) priming, and 3) episodic memory triggers.

The Research

Brain Chemistry and Testing
The connections in brains are like a big pile of extension cords and plugs in a bath of chemicals. The “cords and plugs” correspond to the axon-synapse connections made in the brain that initiate content learning. The chemical bath is the liquid environment of your brain, consisting of cerebrospinal fluid, hormones, neurotransmitters and blood.

The relevance of this is that the same “facts” or “words on a page” can mean something different to you and your students based on the brain’s chemistry of the moment. For example, when you are learning something new—an open-minded, low-stress mindset might be good. But that’s not what most testing environments are like.

There are four 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), 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, 3) cortisol, (a stress-related hormone that supports energy levels), and 4) glucose (it provides short term energy and, in low to moderate doses, promotes enhanced memory).

The Brain Has a “Workspace”
Brains are highly sensitive to environmental “cues.” I have always advocated that we ensure students taking a test take it in the room in which they studied for it. That’s because the right space can prompt episodic (spatial) and even emotional or procedural memory. But there’s more to it. When taking a test, stress is an issue, too. Stress impaired memory when assessed in the unfamiliar context, but not when assessed in the learning context. 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 there days before the event.


Let’s “flesh out” the ideas listed 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. A brisk walk will do the trick. It is raised by strong positive feelings, such as reunions and celebrations. Most of all, it’s 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 tasks, and 3) excitement, like theater, competition, comedy, the arts. Running in place, jumping jacks or musical chairs can boost this chemical.

Cortisol is part of your brain’s stress response. Too much cortisol is bad for learning. In one study, students were asked to take just 10 minutes and write before a big exam. The given topic was, “Write about your thoughts regarding the upcoming test.” The de-stressing that occurred was dramatic; this group scored 5-17% higher than the control group who did not write and were asked to reflect on a neutral topic. Why does pre-test writing work? I speculate that it helps students not only vent, but also feel more in control of their own feelings. Feeling in control helps reduce our stress levels.

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.

In one study, the teacher used a peppermint candy during simple skill practice, performance, memorization, and alphabetizing. 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.

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?” It’s neither.

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, it can be done. You can prep the brain several ways. One is by showing them (the students) the letter “A” in advance. (I’ll tell you “how” in a moment.)

The other one of our two “prepping” strategies (as mentioned earlier) is to give peppermints to the kids for your final review, then provide them again at the time of the big test. This raises attentional levels and provides glucose.

The first research study I mentioned above was conducted at a large research university in the USA. Here is what they started with:

The “mind games” manipulation came in the form of a “Test Bank ID code” (completely phony) on the 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 the “A” on their ID Code outperformed BOTH the “F” on the code group 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 non-conscious processes play in achievement settings.

Test Stressors
Moderate – high stress before testing impairs memory. Memory performance is enhanced when the classroom learning stress is matched at retrieval. As a general rule, low – moderate stress is best for encoding and for retrieving. It is best to match the encoding stress level with the retrieving stress level.

Combine for Positive Synergy
The science is solid when you consider each strategy, mentioned above, separately. But, when combined, these strategies may help you get to the next achievement level.

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!”  

This is the potential of smarter, targeted teaching. But you have to commit to the process and ensure that it gets done. Don’t let anyone say, “I’ve heard of all that!” Get your staff on board and start making miracles. Is this awesome, or what? Let’s cut to the chase: everything you do in your classroom is likely to have SOME effect on the brain. Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.”

Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!

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