An 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.
Because you can never have too many lists:
You’ve heard it all before: celebs are people, too, and a lot of them took the SAT just like you did. Of course, SAT scores are confidential, so you’re not likely to find huge ranked lists of celebrities and their respective SAT scores, but still, a few have divulged this private information, and some of them are pretty impressive. Whether they’re perfect, nearly perfect, or downright abysmal, these celebrity SAT scores just might surprise you.
Please note: all of these scores are based out of a maximum possible score of 1600.
Note: In 2005, the College Board raised the top SAT score from 1600 to 2400 when it added the Writing subject.
Fact check: the SAT gives you 200 points per subject for writing your name. Not 400.
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.
Nancy Xiao at teachstreet sent me this cool map of SAT scores for universities listed in US News and World Report’s Top 20 ranking for 2010.
Via: SAT Prep Courses
Rankings lists always generate a lot of debate about what the ‘best’ schools really are, and this list, with its rather obvious northeastern bias, is sure to be no exception. And before anyone gets too excited, be aware that the map is based on US News & World Report’s university rankings and does not include liberal arts colleges (links to 2011 rankings).
Yet regardless of which particular universities you think deserve to be in the Top 20 list, Nancy’s teachstreet map provides a good illustration of the general level of SAT scores needed for admission to America’s elite colleges and universities.
Generally, top US schools require a minimum cumulative SAT score of around 2100 for a chance at admission, while the ‘rest of the best’ require a minimum score of around 2000 for consideration.
Thanks for the illustrating that Nancy!
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Stephen’s Sound Advice – How to Ace the SATs|
The thing is…Stephen’s actually right about how to improve your essay score.
But paying Princeton Review $350/hour? Not so much.
Before many of us were even old enough to take the SAT, Dr. Gary Gruber was already helping students improve their test scores. 30 years later, Dr. Gruber remains one of the foremost authorities on SAT & ACT test preparation, publishing more than 30 test prep books that have sold over 7 million copies.
Dr. Gruber’s test prep books include:
Gruber’s Complete SAT Guide
Gruber’s Complete ACT Guide 2010
Gruber’s SAT 2400
Gruber’s SAT Word Master
Gruber’s Complete SAT Reading Workbook
Gruber’s Complete SAT Writing Workbook
Gruber’s Complete SAT Math Workbook
Dr. Gruber was kind enough to answer a few questions about his long experience in test prep, his thoughts about the new SAT, and his recommendations for tutors and students.
How did you get started in test prep? Do you still personally train students?
When in fifth grade I received a 90IQ (below average) on an IQ Test, my father who was a High School teacher at the time, was concerned so he was able to get me an IQ test hoping I could study it and increase my score. However, when I looked at the test, I was so fascinated at what the questions were trying to assess, I started to figure out what strategies and thinking could have been used for the questions and saw interesting patterns of what the test-maker was trying to test. I increased my IQ to 126 and then to 150. The initial experience of scoring so low on a first IQ test and branded as “dull minded”actually developed my fascination and research with standardized tests and I was determined to afford all other students my knowledge and experience so they would show their true potential as I did. So I constantly write books, newspaper and magazine articles and columns, software, and personally teach students and teachers.
The College Board revamped the SAT in 2005. How has the new SAT changed from the old SAT? Do you think the new SAT is harder or easier than the old SAT?
The College Board had taken out the Analogies and Quantitative Comparisons and had included and Essay section. In the Reading section shorter reading passages and questions relating to “double-reading passages” were added. The new math section was enhanced and added items from third year college preparatory math.
What is the ‘Gruber method’ and how does it differ from other test prep methods?
The unique aspect of my method is that I provide a mechanism and process where the student internalizes the use of strategies and thinking skills and then reinforce those methods so that students can answer questions on the SAT or ACT without panic or brain wracking. This is actually a “fun” process. The Gruber method focuses on the student’s patterns of thinking and how the student should best answer the questions. I have also developed a nationally syndicated test which is the only one of its kind and which actually tracks a student’s thinking approach for the SAT (and ACT) and directs the student to exactly what strategies are necessary for them to learn. Instead of just learning how to solve one problem at a time, if you learn a Gruber strategy you can that problem and thousands of other problems.
How do you ensure that the practice questions in your books are accurate reflections of what students will see on the actual tests?
There are two processes. For the first, I am constantly critically analyzing all the current questions and patterns on the actual tests. The second process is based on the fact that I am in directly in touch with the research development teams for any new items or methods used in the questions on any upcoming test, so I am probably the only one besides the actual SAT or ACT people that knows exactly what is being tested and why it is being tested on the SAT or what will be tested on current and upcoming tests.
What percentage of test prep study time should students spend learning vocabulary words?
The student should not spend too much time on this—perhaps 4 hours at most. The time should be invested in learning the Important Prefixes and Roots I have developed and the 3 Vocabulary Strategies. The student might also want to learn the 291 words and their opposites, which I have developed based on research of 100’s of SAT’s.
What advice can you give to students suffering from test anxiety?
I find when the student learns specific strategies they see how a strategy can be used for a multitude of questions and when they see a question on an actual SAT that uses the strategy it reinforces a confidence in them and reduces the panic. They can also treat the SAT as a game by using my strategic approaches and the panic is also reduced as a result.
SAT vs. ACT: How should students decide which test to take?
The correlation happens to be very high for both tests in that if you score well on one you will score equivalently well on the other. However, the ACT is more memory oriented than the SAT. The material is about the same, for example, there is Grammar on both tests. Math is about the same except the ACT is less strategically oriented. There is Reading on both tests and they test about the same things. However on the ACT there is a whole section on scientific data interpretation (The SAT has some questions on this topic in the Math). Fortunately you don’t have to know the science subject matter on the ACT. If you are more prone to memory, I would take the ACT. If you are more prone to strategizing or you like puzzles, I would take the SAT. In any event, I would check with the Schools that you are applying to and find out which test they prefer.
What is the single most important piece of advice you can give to students taking the SAT or ACT?
Learn some specific strategies which can be found in my books. This will let you think mechanically without wracking your brains. When answering the questions, don’t concentrate or panic about finding the answer. Try to extract something in the question which is curious and/or which will lead you to a next step in the question. You will through this “processing” the question, enable you to get an answer.
What is the single most important piece of advice you can give to tutors teaching the SAT or ACT?
Make sure that you learn the specific strategies and teach students those strategies using many different questions which employ the strategy, so the student will see variations on how that strategy is used.
What recommendations can you give to tutors who want to use your books in their test prep programs?
In Sections VI and VII in the INTRODUCTION to the SAT book there are programs for 4 hours and longer for studying for the SAT. You can use this information to create a program for teaching the student.
In Sections III and IV in the INTRODUCTION to the ACT book there are programs for 4 hours and longer for studying for the ACT. You can use this information to create a program for teaching the student.
Always try to reinforce the strategic approach, where the student can hone and internalize strategies so that they can use them for multitudes of questions.
Thank you Dr. Gruber!
CollegeStats.org has posted what it calls The Ultimate Guide to SAT Test Statistics:
To learn more about SAT scores and percentiles, what they mean, how colleges use them and the support versus criticisms of the test, we’ve prepared a list of links for your convenience. All these links are current, and include some of the latest test scores as well as historic numbers in some links. This list is categorized, and each link is listed alphabetically within those categories.
The page has a good list of links with a lot of interesting information about the SAT. Check it out!
From the New York Times:
Average SAT scores in reading and writing declined by one point this year, while math scores held steady, according to a report on the high school class of 2009 released Tuesday by the College Board.
Average scores on the three sections of the SAT were 501 in critical reading, 493 in writing, and 515 in mathematics. Scores for each section of the test range from 200 to 800.
Average scores last year, for the high school class of 2008, were 502 in reading, 494 in writing, and 515 in math.
More than 1.5 million college-bound seniors took the SAT, the largest group that had ever taken the test.
Males continue to outperform females on Math and Critical Reading (slightly), while females outperform males on Writing.
Ethnic disparities in performance continue:
In critical reading, non-Hispanic white students on average scored 528, compared with 516 for Asian students, 455 for Hispanic ones and 429 for African-Americans. In math, Asian students averaged 587, compared with 536 for non-Hispanic whites, 461 for Hispanics and 426 for blacks. In writing, Asians averaged 520, compared with 517 for non-Hispanic whites, 448 for Hispanics and 421 for blacks.
There also remains a strong correlation between family income and SAT performance:
The average scores for all three sections of the test directly reflected students’ family wealth. Students from families with an annual income above $200,000 scored, on average, 68 points higher in critical reading than students from families earning less than $20,000 per year, with similar disparities for math and writing.
Critics of the SAT typically point to disparities like these to claim that the test favors wealthier white students, and to a certain extent these criticisms may be justified. However, there is also another factor at work here:
An even sharper correlation showed up between students’ average scores and the highest educational attainment of their parents. Students whose parents did not graduate from high school averaged 420 in critical reading, 139 points lower than students whose parents had a graduate degree, who averaged 559.
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.
That’s not to say that factors of race and income do not affect SAT performance, but simply that the relative impact of these factors on student success may be overstated when compared to the impact of parental education.
Thanks for the kind words Rodney. I really appreciate it!
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