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.
Here are the raw to scaled score conversion tables for the 2012-13 Official SAT Practice Test for each subject.
In addition to listing the straight conversion tables, I have also added the raw score point percentages for each scaled score. For instance, to get a scaled score of 600 on the Critical Reading subject for this test, you need 46 raw score points. With 67 total raw score points available on Critical Reading, a raw score of 46 translates into 69% (46/67) of the total points available.
For more on how your raw score is determined for each subject, see here.
Please also note that the Writing subject includes only raw score conversions for the multiple choice portion, and does not include effects of the essay on the scaled score.
Earlier this Fall, the College Board released a study on the use of the SAT in determining a student’s likelihood of college and career success. Jennifer Karan, Executive Director of the SAT Program at the College Board, was kind enough to send me her thoughts on the report, which are reprinted below:
Does Parental Education Affect SAT Achievement?
The College Board’s most recent SAT Report on College & Career Readiness shows that the class of 2012 was the most diverse class of SAT takers in history – and representative of the diversity in our nation’s classrooms.
While our efforts to democratize access to higher education are yielding some positive results, the report shows that non-school factors, including parental education, can have an outsized impact on students’ college readiness.
Sixty percent of SAT takers whose parents had attained a bachelor’s degree met the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark, compared to only 27 percent of SAT takers whose parents had not attained a four-year college degree. The differences in college readiness by level of parental education is another indicator of the inequities in our educational system, as students from families with lower levels of parental education are more likely to attend less resourced schools where they may not have access to or are not encouraged to complete a rigorous core curriculum, which is a basic requirement for college readiness.
In concert with many of the efforts currently underway, lawmakers and policymakers should continue to focus on ensuring that underserved and first-generation college students have access to the SAT and other educational opportunities. Without these proactive efforts, it is likely that the number of Americans with college degrees over the long term will not grow, causing further inequity in educational achievement and income disparity.
Of the students in the class of 2012 who reported being first generation college goers, nearly half – 46 percent – were minority students. Specifically, 62 percent of all Hispanic SAT takers and 48 percent of all African American SAT takers in the class of 2012, respectively, are first-generation college goers.
A central part of the College Board’s efforts to expand access to the exam for underserved students is the SAT Fee Waiver Program. In the 2011-2012 academic year, the College Board expended over $44 million on SAT Fee Waivers and related expenses, enabling 22 percent of SAT takers to have access to the test and other services free of charge.
Jennifer’s observations dovetail nicely with my own previous comments about the outsized role that parental education plays in determining a student’s likelihood of success:
The correlation between family income and/or race and SAT performance may be in some ways misleading. It’s not necessarily that students are simply ‘buying’ better scores or that the test is culturally biased against minorities, so much as the parents of better scoring students tend to be better educated themselves, and therefore have developed skill sets that can be passed down to help their children perform more optimally. Since better educated parents are also more likely to be both wealthy and white, these socio-economic discrepancies appear amplified in the SAT score disparities.
Bottom line: the College Board study further supports the notion that, in terms of a student’s college success, nothing succeeds like parental success.
Think you know your SAT vocabulary words? Try this quiz, which includes 50 of the most difficult vocabulary words from the Official SAT Study Guide.
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An interesting article from the New York Times on learning and retention explodes some of the myths about the best ways to study.
First, students retain more information when they study the same material in different places:
[M]any study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.
The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.
“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.
I can personally attest to this phenomenon. Ever since I opened my classroom and stopped tutoring in students’ homes, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in my effectiveness at raising their scores. Perhaps this improvement is caused in part by students learning the material from me at one location and then reviewing the material (via homework) at another, rather than simply learning and reviewing at the same location.
It also helps to vary the type of material studied in a single sitting.
Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.
For SAT tutors, varying Critical Reading, Writing and Math subjects during a lesson may help students retain more of the material. For students, practicing different subjects in the same homework session may help your overall test performance.
Finally, the article emphasizes the importance of testing itself as a valuable teaching tool.
“Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says — and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less.
In one of his own experiments, Dr. Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material.
But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.
My approach to homework is to assign sections out of the Official SAT Study Guide and then tell my students to simulate as closely as possible a live test environment – what I call ‘practicing like you play’. That means I want them answer a full section in one sitting while timing themselves as if they were taking the test for real. According to the article, this homework approach should help students retain more information than an approach that simply assigns random practice questions without the formal structure of an actual test.
“Testing has such bad connotation; people think of standardized testing or teaching to the test,” Dr. Roediger said. “Maybe we need to call it something else, but this is one of the most powerful learning tools we have.”
You won’t get an argument from me, Dr. Roediger.
Beginning in May 2011, the College Board will eliminate the ‘guessing penalty’ for AP exams.
Under the old College Board policy, AP scores were based on the total number of correct answers minus a fraction for every incorrect answer—one-third of a point for questions with four possible answers and one-fourth of a point for questions with five possible answers. AP students were trained to work the odds by eliminating one or more possible answers and then making an “educated guess.” In fact, the College Board traditionally supported this strategy saying, “…if you have SOME knowledge of the question, and can eliminate one or more answer choices, informed guessing from among the remaining choices is usually to your advantage.”
The College Board similarly applies a 1/4 point guessing penalty for each incorrect SAT multiple choice answer, so it’s not a stretch to assume that a change AP scoring may presage a change in SAT scoring down the road:
Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said he viewed it as significant that the College Board was changing any policy related to guessing, since the organization has argued since the 1950s that a penalty was needed. He said he looked forward to seeing how the College Board would justify having one policy for AP and another for the SAT.
For the moment, the College Board maintains a studiously ambiguous stance on the prospects of change in SAT scoring policy:
As for the SAT, the College Board spokeswoman indicated that the change is being announced only for AP. “The SAT Program has no immediate plans to change scoring processes, and will keep the public informed if that position changes,” she said.
I wouldn’t exactly call that a firm statement in support of the existing SAT scoring system. Would you?
The sudden impetus for the change may come from the increased popularity of the ACT, which does not use a guessing penalty:
Schaeffer also said that the guessing penalty is “a major competitive disadvantage for the SAT” vs. the ACT. “While the ACT is not a better test in any psychometric sense, the lack of a guessing penalty is one of the ways it is more consumer-friendly,” he said.
Although I agree with Mr. Schaeffer that the lack of a guessing penalty most likely contributes to the ACT’s increasing popularity, I do not believe the difference in scoring policy is purely cosmetic.
The SAT’s guessing penalty distorts the test’s ability to evaluate student performance accurately because it makes the test more about evaluating a student’s level of self-confidence, and less about evaluating his or her level of actual knowledge.
With the guessing penalty in play, it’s not enough just to choose an answer. For each question, the student also has to decide whether he or she is confident enough in the choice to risk a quarter point reduction for being wrong. This extra layer of decision making tends to discourage less assertive students, who will often shy away from those questions whose answers they are not wholly sure of, including questions where they would otherwise guess correctly were it not for their fear of the guessing penalty.
The result is that the guessing penalty ends up favoring the bold, guessing student over the more cautious, selective student – exactly the opposite outcome from what the guessing penalty is supposed to accomplish.
Studies suggest that the guessing penalty may also contribute to the persistent lag in the SAT performance of female test takers (especially in Math).
Research indicates that males are more likely to take risks on the test and guess when they do not know the answer, whereas females tend to answer the question only if they are sure they are correct. Unwillingness to make educated guesses on this exam has been shown to have a significant negative impact on scores.
The ACT does not have a guessing penalty, which may be one reason why the gender gap on that test is much smaller.
In my own teaching experience, I find that female SAT students often display a greater tendency to skip questions when they are not completely sure of the answer – even when the answer they would have picked turns out be the correct one. These less assertive students lose points they would otherwise earn were there no guessing penalty to discourage them from answering – points more assertive students earn even though they may have no better understanding of why a particular answer is correct.
Bottom line: if and when the College Board finally does away with the SAT guessing penalty, it will be doing itself and its test takers a big favor – not only because it will make the SAT more ‘consumer friendly’ but also, and more importantly, because it will help SAT scoring better reflect each student’s level of academic performance regardless of his or her level of personal self-confidence.
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