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How to use mindfulness to boost your standardized test performance

An expert's take on how to ace your exams through mindfulness.

Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash
  • Being here and in the present is a necessity, if you want to excel in any situation.
  • Author Logan Thompson explores in his new book how mindfulness is one of the most important aspects of test taking.
  • Mindfulness is something that anyone can take up.

Mindfulness is one of the most powerful modes of thought we can harness. It's quite simple too. In short, it's a state of mind where we are conscious of the now and embrace our full range of experience in the present moment. That may be a rush of emotions and thoughts, or it could be the flow we find ourselves in when conducting a task.

The power of this simple state of mind cannot be understated. It's an untapped mental space that we're all privy to. While yogis and mystics have harnessed this practice for millennia, nowadays a great deal of people are also finding the benefits in applying mindfulness.

The application for this mode of thought is endless. That's why author, Logan Thompson, decided to start teaching his test prep students how to capitalize on it. He details this in his new book: Beyond the Content: Mindfulness as a Test Prep Advantage, where he explores his methods for banishing test anxiety, acing exams through awareness and accepting all order of emotions that arise in the flurry of everyday thought.

Big Think recently caught up with the author and got an inside look into the magic of mindfulness.

Beyond the Content

Thompson sets out the idea that the hardest part of taking a test stems from the stress, anxiety and self doubt we harbor. Academic instruction focuses on what he considers the other half of test prep, which is the standard content and strategy. That is, learning the material and applying it. Thompson doesn't believe that lack of proper studying or not comprehending the material is where the problem lies.

"Students keep talking about being a bad test taker. I really push back against that. I don't think that's true. What's most often happening is that students understandably have only been studying half of test prep, just the content and strategy part."

Thompson has created a metaphorical framework in the book where he explores how to tackle this other half of the test prep – the mindfulness and mental performance aspect.

Much of the problem stems from the stream of thoughts and emotions which are detracting students from performing their best on the test. Thompson labels these distracting feelings and thoughts as "passengers."

"We have thoughts that are frequent visitors and tell us we're not good enough, or if we fail this problem we'll fail the whole test. We all have passengers, like those in a car that are trying to take the wheel."

Thompson's solution is to unlock the "driver" of ourselves, or the parts of an individual's psyche that can bring about calmness, wisdom and intelligence. Passengers never go away. The goal isn't to get rid of them either, but to embrace the thought and put in its place for what it is.

Our minds are a cauldron of activity. When we start to practice something like mindfulness, sometimes conversely we can begin to get more anxious. We're realizing these negative thoughts are there and now we want to get rid of them. But the more we think and try, the more tangled it gets.

Thompson puts down the gas pedal on this metaphor through the whole book. When there is a synthesis of mindfulness and an interplay between our drivers and passengers, our mind gets us to where we need to be.

Methods of mindfulness for test prep

Logan was first drawn to the concept when he was in his early twenties. Books like The Power of Now and Wherever you go there you are, radically changed his perspective on life. After spending years meditating and attending mindfulness retreats, he realized that this way of thinking could be imparted on students, especially those anxious test takers.

"When I first drew a contrast to the 'present moment' and the past and future moments; and became aware of that potential distinction – it was intellectually mind blowing."

On the subject of the receptiveness from the students to this method, he spoke about how quickly they took to it. There was no resistance or defensiveness to try.

Thompson often uses paradoxical observations to detach the students from the outcome of worrying about what's going to happen. By planning to not be worried and to be calm during a test, students are actually preparing themselves to be anxious.

What our bodies and minds do now tends to form habits on what they're going to do next.

"if I want to be relaxed, calm, focused in this next moment, then I have to surrender being worried about the next moment and practice being within the now. The best predictor of how we're going to be in the next moment is this moment."

Awareness is the first step towards realignment.

"[Lack of awareness]... is like someone being behind the wheel and not realizing they've gone beyond the path. First open your eyes and see where you are. Then you have the choice to either stay on that path or jump on the path you want to be on."

These paths could be the choice to daydream or the choice to stay focused on the task at hand.

For teachers and parents that want to impart this onto their students and children, the best way to start is just to listen and open up a dialogue. Let students share with one another about the "passengers" that they hold in their minds and have them realize they're not alone.

They're not bad test takers. There's no reason to blame themselves. It's lack of awareness and the fact that they've never been taught the other half of the equation.

Once students get beyond the content, the state of mindfulness will bloom into so many other countless areas of life. And this goes for everyone, regardless of whether they're a student or not.

Pay attention to the mind, you might end up liking what you find

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The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

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This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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