The Science of Test Anxiety
An interesting article in the New York Times Magazine explores recent scientific research into the impact that test anxiety has on brain chemistry. The results suggest that very different tutoring approaches for dealing with test anxiety may be needed depending on the genetic makeup of the student.
The subjects of the experiment were 779 junior high school students from Taiwan who had just taken a very stressful national exam.
Every May in Taiwan, more than 200,000 ninth-grade children take the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students. This is not just any test. The scores will determine which high school the students are admitted to – or if they get into one at all. Only 39 percent of Taiwanese children make the cut, with the rest diverted to vocational schools or backup private schools. The test, in essence, determines the future for Taiwanese children.
If you think taking the SAT is stressful, just imagine taking a one time test in junior high school that determines not just where you go to high school but whether you even get to go to high school in the first place. Now that’s stressful!
Researchers in this experiment studied the impact of stress on the test takers’ levels of the brain chemical dopamine. Scientists believe a person’s dopamine level is an important factor in determining how well his or her brain thinks.
“Dopamine changes the firing rate of neurons, speeding up the brain like a turbocharger,” says Silvia Bunge, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. Our brains work best when dopamine is maintained at an optimal level. You don’t want too much, or too little.
Dopamine levels are regulated by enzymes that receive their instructions from the gene COMT.
[COMT] carries the assembly code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain is where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts…. By removing dopamine, the COMT enzyme helps regulate neural activity and maintain mental function.
There are two types of COMT genes. One COMT variant creates enzymes that remove dopamine quickly from the brain, while the other variant creates enzymes that remove dopamine more slowly.
Under low stress conditions, enzymes that remove dopamine more slowly are considered better for cognitive function.
In lab experiments, people have been given a variety of cognitive tasks – computerized puzzles and games, portions of I.Q. tests – and researchers have consistently found that, under normal conditions, those with slow-acting enzymes have a cognitive advantage. They have superior executive function and all it entails: they can reason, solve problems, orchestrate complex thought and better foresee consequences. They can concentrate better….
However, under stressful circumstances such as a big test, dopamine increases to such a high level that the slow acting enzymes can’t keep up with the flood.
“Stress floods the prefrontal cortex with dopamine,” says Adele Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. A little booster hit of dopamine is normally a good thing, but the big surge brought on by stress is too much for people with the slow-acting enzyme, which can’t remove the dopamine fast enough. “Much like flooding a car engine with too much gasoline, prefrontal-cortex function melts down,” Diamond says.
The result is that while a person with slow acting enzymes may have a cognitive advantage under low stress conditions (up to 10 IQ points according to one study), that advantage is lost and even reversed under high stress situations like a big exam, because the person’s elevated dopamine levels remain too high for the person to think properly.
Conversely, while a student with fast acting enzymes may be at a disadvantage under low stress conditions because dopamine levels are too low, under stressful conditions he or she is more easily able to handle the flood of dopamine and perform more optimally.
The brains of the people with the other variant, meanwhile, are comparatively lackadaisical. The fast-acting enzymes remove too much dopamine, so the overall level is too low. The prefrontal cortex simply doesn’t work as well….
People born with the fast-acting enzymes “actually need the stress to perform their best.” To them, the everyday is underwhelming; it doesn’t excite them enough to stimulate the sharpness of mind of which they are capable. They benefit from that surge in dopamine — it raises the level up to optimal. They are like Superman emerging from the phone booth in times of crisis; their abilities to concentrate and solve problems go up.
So how did the Taiwanese students stack up?
The Taiwan study was the first to look at the COMT gene in a high-stakes, real-life setting. Would the I.Q. advantage hold up, or would the stress undermine performance?
It was the latter. The Taiwanese students with the slow-acting enzymes sank on the national exam. On average, they scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes. It was as if some of the A students and B students traded places at test time.
As a test prep tutor, I am all too familiar with this “trading places” phenomenon, where students who perform well in the relatively relaxed school environment often have difficulty achieving the same level of performance during more stressful testing events, while students who perform relatively poorly in school are able to achieve higher scores on standardized tests than their grades might otherwise suggest.
Warrior-prone & Worrier-prone
This new research indicates that a student’s brain chemistry may play an important role in explaining the paradox. In terms of cognitive ability, some brains appear to be genetically wired to handle stressful situations better than others.
Some scholars have suggested that we are all Warriors or Worriers. Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, ready for threatening environments where maximum performance is required. Those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers, capable of more complex planning. Over the course of evolution, both Warriors and Worriers were necessary for human tribes to survive.
We should be careful about overdoing the rather simplistic Warrior vs. Worrier meme here, especially when talking about individual human beings. It’s okay to use Warrior or Worrier as shorthand for the effects of fast and slow acting enzymes, but to claim humans are ALL Warriors OR Worriers is simply not supported by the science.
In fact, as the article points out, a person’s brain is genetically twice as likely to contain a MIX of Warrior and Worrier enzymes as it is to contain either enzyme alone.
In truth, because we all get one COMT gene from our father and one from our mother, about half of all people inherit one of each gene variation, so they have a mix of the enzymes and are somewhere in between the Warriors and the Worriers. About a quarter of people carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter of people Worrier-only.
Better I think to say that people are Warrior or Worrier-prone, since most people’s brains contain a mix of both Warrior and Worrier enzymes, and for these people it may be more likely that the proportion of one enzyme to another affects how well a person’s brain functions under various levels of stress.
Test Taking Abilities: Genetically Predetermined?
So in the end does it all come down to genetics? Are some people just naturally better test takers than others? Simply because one person has a greater proportion of Warrior to Worrier enzymes, is he or she somehow genetically suited to perform better on stressful standardized tests than someone whose proportion is more Worrier to Warrior?
I don’t think so.
The important variable in all this is each student’s individual stress level, which far from being an internal genetic component, is an external influence over which the student can exert a considerable amount of control.
The student who can manage stress in a way that creates an optimal level of dopamine would appear to perform best regardless of his or her individual genetic makeup.
Tutoring the Worrier-prone: Reduce Stress
Remember that those with a genetically higher proportion of worrier enzymes actually report higher IQ test scores overall when placed in a low stress environment, because at low stress these folks’ dopamine levels remain at an optimal level for a longer period time. It’s only when there is a reaction to stressful circumstances, which spikes dopamine levels beyond a certain point, that those with a higher proportion of Worrier enzymes suffer a downgrade in cognitive ability.
If a Worrier-prone student can reduce the amount of stress he or she feels on test day, the size of the spike in dopamine levels should also lessen, along with the associated cognitive issues. The lower the spike, the faster the Worrier-prone student’s dopamine levels may return to an optimal level. Once that happens, his or her natural problem-solving skills and other cognitive advantages should hopefully reappear.
For tutors helping students who appear to exhibit signs of being more Worrier than Warrior, the proper approach would appear to include an emphasis on stress reduction, relaxation, perspective, and confidence building, so that the student is better able to keep the stress and associated dopamine spike to a manageable level on test day.
Tutoring the Warrior-prone: Raise the Stakes
For students who seem more Warrior than Worrier, a different tutoring approach may be appropriate. For these students, more stress can be a good thing, because under more stressful conditions their initially low dopamine levels tend to spike into optimal ranges, rather than past them.
An effective approach for Warrior-prone students may be to emphasize the importance of the test and its potential impact, so that these students feel that they have something to gain by performing well. Another effective tutoring strategy may be to suggest the student visit a few colleges, so the Warrior-prone student can see firsthand the potential payoff that can come from success.
By raising the stakes, the tutor gives the Warrior-prone student something to play for, which in turn can create the right amount of stress necessary for the student to raise his or her dopamine count to a level commensurate with optimal performance on test day.
Again, we need to be very careful about pigeonholing students as either Warrior or Worrier, since most students are going to fall somewhere between the extremes. For any student, attention to his or her individual circumstances is always paramount, and the broad strokes outlined here should be regarded more as suggestions that a tutor should consider, rather than hard and fast guidelines for every situation.
Even so, the Taiwanese experiment does provide a potentially useful explanation of why some students handle the pressure of standardized tests better than others, and test prep tutors armed with this knowledge can hopefully do a better job of helping any student, regardless of his or her genetic makeup, perform more effectively on test day.