How Mindfulness Can Improve Test Scores

Students face tests on a regular basis, from routine school exams to high school entrance tests to the SAT and ACT during the college admissions process. Kids who have to juggle test prep with their typical homework workload and extracurriculars may view tests as a huge stressor, which can lead to decreased performance on exams and test anxiety. Without some kind of strategy for managing stress before exams and on test day, kids can feel a little overwhelmed. Some recent studies on mindfulness and meditation have signaled that adopting some of these practices can ease test anxiety and even improve test scores in some circumstances, so implementing variations of these techniques can make a difference during an important test. When you’re trying to learn more about mindfulness and test prep, you may wonder:

• What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation? • How can mindfulness and/or meditation help students test better? • What are some simple mindfulness and meditation practices that kids can start using? • What kind of tutors address test-taking strategies as well as test prep?

This article was written to answer these questions and provide some helpful information on mindfulness and test prep for families.

Mindfulness and Test Prep | What’s the Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation?

You’ve probably heard “mindfulness” and “meditation” used a lot recently, but it can be tough to understand what both of these practices are and what their differences can be. At first glance, mindfulness and meditation might seem like the same idea—both practices can help reduce stress and improve concentration, as well as lower blood pressure and ease anxiety. But that’s not the whole story!

The goal of mindfulness is to become fully aware in a particular moment, which can help you calm down your mind and relax. It’s a great strategy to use when you know you’ll be in a high-pressure, stressful environment. Mindfulness encompasses many other types of mental exercises, but doesn’t necessarily dictate one specific action, like meditation does. Meditation usually refers to more targeted techniques or focusing on something in particular to help calm down the mind, which might sound pretty similar to mindfulness. If you think about meditation as a certain implementation of mindfulness strategies, you’ll be on the right track. Long story short, you can’t really practice meditation without using mindfulness practices as well, and vice versa.

Mindfulness and Test Prep | How Can Mindfulness Help Students Test Better?

One of the biggest advantages that mindfulness practices can give students is the ability to focus their minds properly and block out unnecessary distractions. This is especially helpful under stressful exam circumstances, where distractions can hinder good performance. In a research study conducted by scientists at the University of California, students participated in a two-week mindfulness training program, and then took the lengthy GRE exam. Students in another group only focused on eating well before the exam, and they did not receive any kind of mindfulness training. When it was time for test day, the students who had practiced mindfulness strategies all had boosted their scores, while students in the control group did not raise their scores at the end of the two-week period. For more details on this study, here’s the New York Times article.

Another article from the Association for Psychological Science shows similar results from the California study. Again, the key point the researchers believe helps raise test scores is the newfound ability of the students who completed mindfulness practice to focus their minds properly and get a grasp on stress during exam time. By learning how to calm down and focus on one moment at a time, the students were able to reduce their anxiety on test day and help keep themselves on track during the lengthy exam periods.

Essentially, what mindfulness provides for its practitioners is a better way to keep track of racing thoughts and distractions, especially when these distractions seem to pop up at unwelcome times. By learning to focus during stressful circumstances, students can benefit not just from exams, but from all kinds of difficult situations in their academic lives. Learning to control stress and not panic when confronted with unexpected questions is important, but it’s also helpful to assist kids to be confident and poised in many different settings, not just in exam rooms.

Mindfulness and Test Prep | What Are Some Simple Practices That Kids Can Use?

No matter what, kids will nearly always feel a little nervous before a big test, but there is a fine line between being “pumped up” before a high-pressure event and panicking as soon as the test starts. Some students might not even know what test anxiety looks like, just because panicking about tests seems “normal” at their schools. That’s not the best test-taking environment! Kids should know that test anxiety can affect their bodies and minds on exam day—some signs like headaches, excess sweating, fidgeting, and an increased pulse are signals that stress is taking over. Beside physical symptoms, stress is most harmful when it interferes with the ability to think and solve problems, and that’s the toughest part about test anxiety. Getting worried about an exam will increase anxiety, which will make it harder for students to concentrate during the exam, which will fuel even more nervousness! Being able to understand the difference between normal nervousness and excess stress is key to performing well during an exam.

Kids will learn to toe this line through practice as they go through stressful situations, but it’s also helpful to know some useful ways to reduce test anxiety even before these situations appear. Once students know how to recognize signs that they’re getting too worried before or during an exam, they can move on to better understanding ways to cut down on this stress before it starts to emerge. Of course, being thoroughly prepared for the exam questions and material will do a lot to ease this nervousness, but some non-academic strategies will also help kids feel more at ease in a testing environment.

So what does a student do if he or she wants to use these kind of practices? Thankfully, there are some particular situations in test environments that can be changed by some simple mindfulness practices, and any student can start practicing those strategies.

• Deep breathing to reduce stress

One of the biggest issues that will come up during exams is extra stress if the questions are different from what students anticipated, or if students start to feel overwhelmed by everything they need to get done within the time limit. Both of these situations produce increased stress, and that stress combined with the exam conditions can wreak havoc on even the best student’s concentration. One easy way to help counteract this kind of stress is by pausing for a few seconds and taking a few deep breaths. Usually students want to race through their exams and not waste a single second, but running ahead while you’re stressed out is the easiest way to make foolish mistakes and then waste more time by going back to correct those errors. Even though it might feel like moving as quickly as possible is the best approach, sometimes it’s worth it to put down the pencil, close your eyes, and take ten deep breaths before going back to scrambled paragraphs, reading comprehension, or tough math problems. Deep breaths immediately help to calm down a speedy heart rate or racing thoughts, and breathing is an important part of both mindfulness and meditative practices. There’s no need to shave minutes off of the exam time limit, but taking thirty seconds to pause and calm down will do wonders to reduce stress.

• Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones

Another frequent problem students have during exams is seeing a question they know they can answer, but suddenly drawing a blank. Even for well-prepared kids, this can be frustrating and a little bit scary! Like the surprise questions scenario, realizing that you’ve learning something but suddenly forgetting how to apply that knowledge can lead to a wave of stress, and some students have difficulty coping with that added nervousness. Faced with this kind of scenario, kids can start to doubt themselves and have thoughts like “I just don’t know how to do this kind of problem, so I should give up,” or “I’ll never be able to finish the test in time, so I’ll just stare at this question,” or “I don’t belong here and I’ll never pass this test/get into this high school/go to a good college.”

Discouraging thoughts combined with drawing mental blanks is a recipe for disaster unless students have a good way to combat this kind of negative thinking. As soon as you notice yourself falling into a pattern of negative thoughts during an exam, ignoring those thoughts won’t be good enough. You might want to try some deep breathing for a few seconds, just to clear your head, and then you should remind yourself that you’re prepared and ready for this exam. Specifically countering these negative thoughts will help you feel less anxious during the test, and once you’ve reminded yourself that you are prepared and capable, you might even find that the mental block is gone.

• Prepare purposefully on exam day

While it’s important to calm down during stressful parts of the exam, it’s also key to get ready for the exam in this same purposeful way. Setting up the area where you’ll take the test can help reduce anxiety later, because you’ll know exactly where your pencils are, where the bathroom is, how to get more scrap paper, etc. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in the middle of a tough problem with only a few minutes left, then running out of pencil lead and not having extra writing implements. Preparedness will help pave the way for a successful exam day, and getting yourself set up with ample time before a test begins will give you the chance to sit back and rest for a few moments before diving in to your exam.

There are just a few of strategies you can use right away to reduce test stress, but there are many more. Take a look at this helpful booklet for some other ways to beat test anxiety.

Mindfulness and Test Prep | Brain Foods That Can Help Improve Performance on Test Day

In addition to these mindfulness tips, it’s important to keep a holistic mindset when preparing for exams. It’s not just about preventing stress during the test. Eating properly and understanding what kind of “brain food” can help improve performance are also crucial in the days before an exam. Mental and physical readiness are both going to make a difference on test day. As most people know, kids need to eat properly in the weeks before an exam, bring snacks on test day, and get a lot of sleep in the nights before the test. Making these small changes to a kid’s typical routine can build up to a large difference when it’s time to take an exam.

So what kind of diet can help prepare a student to do his or her personal best on test day? A good strategy is to eat foods with extra protein, like spinach and other leafy greens, beans, tofu, and lean meats, because those foods can help a student stay focused throughout the entire test. Students should try to include this kind of food in the days leading up to an exam, and they should make sure to have a healthy, satisfying breakfast before exams. Anything with extra protein, like eggs, can make up a good pre-test breakfast. Whole grains or other fiber-rich foods will help keep kids from getting hungry right away, which can be a distraction during longer exams. In the same vein, snacks and water are important to have during tests, assuming kids are allowed a snack break or two. Fruit and granola bars can help boost blood sugar, which will help students perk up after a long morning of testing. Trying to focus with a rumbling stomach is tough, so eating well is crucial for good performance.

Mindfulness and Test Prep | How To Choose a Tutor With a Holistic Approach

In order to get the best test prep experience possible, it is important to find a tutor who can work with a student in every area of the test, and someone who will take the time to get to know that student and find ways to improve that kid’s test-taking skills in general. It’s great to improve math skills or essay-writing techniques, but all of that practice will not be so helpful if a student failed to learns proper test-taking skills or strategies for calming down before a test.

For example, some students may excel when they’re asked similar types of questions, or when they can expect what kind of question comes next. Change up the way a problem is presented, or surprise them with question order, and sometimes students will freeze up, even though they have all the tools to solve a problem. Confidence is key when preparing to take an exam, and it’s important to remember that even if a student has all the test prep in the world, the test can go poorly unless that student has strategies for staying calm and dealing with unexpected stressors.

That's why at Origins Tutoring we believe that tutors should do their best to tackle tests from two sides—the test prep approach and the actual test-taking side. Both are necessary in order to master an exam, so we recommend a student works with a tutor who emphasizes both areas.