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Getting Into A “Smart” Frame Of Mind on Test-Days

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As regular readers know, my school is not a big fan (and nor am I) of a lot of specific “test-prep” leading up to our annual state tests.

We spend very little time on direct test-preparation (the day before the tests begins, several of my colleagues and I may spend a half-hour on test-taking strategies and specific test “vocabulary” — see a previous post titled Test-Taking Strategies), but we spend the rest of the year preparing students to become life-long learners.

In addition, our administrators manage the Herculean task of rearranging our class schedules for six days and organizing test booklets so that every student takes every test with their subject teacher, in the classroom where they’ve been studying that subject every year, and with their same classmates. In other words, students will take the English test in their regular English class (which has been expanded to three hours for that day). This, I believe, dramatically reduces test anxiety and enhances motivation on the part of students to do their best.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink,” he describes an intriguing experiment that might have some practical relevance to our students taking tests. Before I share it, though, I should point out that it’s not footnoted, and that though Gladwell is a great storyteller, he is often critiqued for misinterpreting research. So, with those caveats, here’s the excerpt:

“Two Dutch researchers did a study in which they had groups of students answer forty-two fairly demanding questions from the board game Trivial Pursuit. Half were asked to take five minutes beforehand to think about what it would mean to be a professor and write down everything that came to mind. Those students got 55.6 percent of the questions right. The other half of the students were asked to first sit and think about soccer hooligans. They ended up getting 42.6 percent of the Trivial Pursuit questions right. The ‘professor’ group didn’t know more than the ‘soccer hooligan’ group. They weren’t smarter or more focused or more serious. They were simply in a ‘smart’ frame of mind, and, clearly, associating themselves with the idea of something smart, like a professor, made it a lot easier—in that stressful instant after a trivia question was asked—to blurt out the right answer. The difference between 55.6 and 42.6 percent, it should be pointed out, is enormous. That can be the difference between passing and failing.” (p. 56)

In addition to the issues I’ve already raised, it does seem strange that the researchers didn’t have a control group that they just gave the questions to — perhaps they did and Gladwell just didn’t include those results.

But I wonder if doing something like this might be worth a try on testing days?  Is anybody aware of similar research results?

I’m wondering if this kind of what Gladwell calls brain-”priming” might have some value?  What do you think?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. Hi Larry:

    This reminded me of “The Counterfeit Self” from Dec 13th Sunday NY Times Magazine’s 9th Annual Year in Ideas. In that study, people who thought they were wearing fake designer sunglasses were more dishonest than people who thought they were wearing real ones.

    I like your idea!

    Eric

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