How unfair are “standardized” exams?

Here’s a story for you: a qualified, experienced surgeon sat for a national board exam and failed miserably. She was devastated, thinking her career—and her life— were coming to an end. She found me on the web and called, sounding quite hopeless.  A woman of color, over forty, she told me the story of the test:  it was an oral exam administered by two old white men.  And the location for the test?  Catch this: in a hotel bedroom.  Are you kidding?  She was so traumatized by the location and the less-than-approving facial expressions of one of the examiners that she fell apart.  And this was billed as a “standardized” test. Are you kidding?

We coached together for 6 sessions. She learned how to stay calm whatever the outer events were (bad questions, weird examiner looks). She practiced recovering her confidence if she felt it was slipping (“I can figure this out,” rather than “I don’t have a clue”), and, most of all, she stayed focused on her goal (to give complete, thorough answers to each question)  She passed!

The moral of this story: don’t be thrown by the circumstances.  You can get over and through any hurdle if you use the tools to stay calm, confident and focused. Even if you don’t think you can, guess what?  You can.   The only difficulty with all of this is that we don’t teach the skills to be calm, confident and focused in school. Kids should be getting this training starting at an early age. These are life skills. Much more important than learning about cosines (sorry, math nerds), or about the War of 1812 (sorry, history buffs). Let’s teach our kids the really useful stuff: how to deal with any test, in school and in life.

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Gear Up for a Great Start




If you want to get off to a great start this year answer these three questions:

(1) What are you looking forward to?

A particular subject?  Seeing an old friend?  It’s good to register what you’re happily anticipating. Why? Because these are the things that will charge your jets if you start feeling stressed out (see question 2).

(2) What would you rather avoid? 

These are the things you want to be aware of right from the get-go — because they form the “cracks” where stress can build very quickly. Remember: we feel stressed when we disconnect. If there’s a subject you are not looking forward to, best to get clear about it now so you can plan to deal with it properly rather than pretend it will go away (it won’t — see question 3!)

(3)  Balance your weekly schedule.  

Make sure your weekly schedule balances activities that are enjoyable with those that are less so. Every time you sit down to study you should include a mix of things that are more challenging with those that are easier. Always start with the things that are more challenging. Same with balancing your study time with “down time”—build in time to take breaks, but only after you study.

The way to get off to your best start is creating balance in all areas. Questions about how you can balance yourself? Email     Dr. B (click “Contact” on the home page).

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Test Anxiety and How to Overcome It: Part II


TestTakingBubbleSheetThis is the second of a four-part blog series on overcoming test anxiety. The first post was all about knowing the test content.  No one would disagree that this is the single most important factor in reducing test anxiety and scoring well on a test. The second factor for overcoming test anxiety is a little less obvious, but vital nonetheless: you need to know how the test is structured. 

What does this mean? First, a short story: In my freshman year of college I ran on the cross-country team. Before each meet the coach would gather the team together and show us a diagram of the terrain we were going to cover and what to expect along the way (sudden inclines, drop offs, heavily wooded areas, etc.) In other words, the coach gave us a map. Our job was to follow the map during the race.  This reduced our anxiety because we knew what to expect.

It’s the same with a test: before you take a test you need have a map of what to expect. You need to ask the following questions:  (1) what content will be covered?; (2) how much time will be given?; (3) will the test be divided into sections?; (4) what types of questions can you expect? (multiple choice; true/false; short answer; essay, etc).

Knowing how the test will be structured will likely guide you in how you study for it. You’ll have an idea of what parts of the subject you need to study in more depth.  Test structure will also give you information about how much time you’ll have to take the test, and what amounts of time you can give to different sections. With the knowledge of test structure you’ll also be able to plan on breaks during the test (will you have enough time to use the restroom? may just enough time to rest your eyes for 5 seconds?).  [There will be a separate blog post on taking breaks—coming soon].

I’m often surprised when I ask students I work with about a test they’re about to take and they only know what the test covers (the subject matter), but nothing about the test itself. If the teacher hasn’t said anything about the way the test is structured most students are afraid to ask.  I want you to take a different approach: I want to encourage and empower you to find out as much as you can. This means asking the teacher. Don’t be shy! Most teachers will see your asking as a sign of you being responsible and acting accordingly.

To overcome test anxiety you need to take charge of the test experience as much as you can. Knowing what to expect is one way of taking charge.


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Overcoming Test Anxiety: Part I


AnxiousTeenIf you’re suffering from test anxiety you’ve come to the right place.  This post, and the next three, will help you. I’m a psychologist who coaches students to reduce, and in many cases, eliminate their test anxiety. In these posts I’ll share with you what you need to perform at your best without test anxiety.

There are four essential factors that contribute to successful test performance. You need to know and master all of them. Without any one you’re going to have test anxiety. When you master all four you’ll be a powerhouse.  The four factors are (1) know the test content; (2) understand how the test is structured; (3) practice and build endurance; and (4)  have performance skills.  Starting with this post and in each of the next three, I’m going to take apart each factor.  Study these posts well!

KNOW THE TEST CONTENT.   This may seem like a no-brainer. “Of course I need to know the content!” But you’d be surprised if I told you that what most people think of as “knowing” the material is not really knowing it at all. They’re just memorizing what they believe will be on the test.

But what happens, during the test, if you get a question that you haven’t seen before? You memorized all the right stuff but now you’re finding that’s not enough. What do you need to do?  Here are the three guidelines for really learning test content.

(1) Make sure that you understand what you’re studying. Many students skim the surface, memorizing some facts or formulae that they don’t truly understand. After you memorize something then explain it to someone else. It will show youwhat you know and what you still need to learn.

(2) Record the material:  write it down on flashcards, or make a study guide highlighting main points.

(3) Build flexibilityAs you review the material, change it up: shuffle your flashcards; create mock problems for yourself; if you have a study buddy make up questions for each other. When you take a test you need to expect the unexpected! So play around with the material so you feel comfortable with it.

A final point: start studying well in advance of a test!  This is probably the most important factor as you learn content: give yourself enough time to thoroughly digest the material. Many students cram at the last moment and so the material is not yet assimilated. Students who give themselves ample time to read, study, review and gain flexibility will not only score much higher, but will do so without the burden of debilitating test anxiety.


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The tests of life


learnWith educators and parents feeling strongly that too much time is given to “teaching to the test” and that programs, particularly in the arts, are cut or suffer as a result, many colleges are making standardized test scores optional.  The controvery over standardized testing and the stress it causes is continually unfolding.

A recent article in the US News and World Report spoke to the issue of test stress:  “Students, too, are stressed out, forced to take tests they fear will determine much of their futures. If you want to really take away a love of learning, reduce it to a number and a ranking. And administrators, under intense pressure to be deemed “effective,” have unfortunately, in some cases, resorted to cheating to make sure the scores are where they arbitrarily need to be.” 

While many colleges have now made reporting optional for standardized test scores,  tests are not going to go away. Our lives are filled with them on a daily basis: your child falls of her bike and breaks her wrist, a bill you thought you paid is suddenly showing up in collections, your car gets a flat on the freeway.  The phrase “life is a test” has never been more true as the daily demands we have to deal with get more numerous and complicated.We’re always being tested and the question is always before us: how are you handling this challenging situation– this test?

We should be teaching our students, from the earliest years, how to handle tests—whether on paper or in life—in a way that is productive rather than destructive. When you are faced with challenging situations—a tests—whether they’re in the classrooom, the boardroom, or the dining room—you can learn to deal with them in a way that is calm, confident and focused. We should be giving our students the tools for dealing with all of life’s tests.


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When lots of studying amounts to poor test results


how-to-deal-with-test-anxiety-1Here’s an all-too-common scenario I’ve witnessed working with under-performing students:

A student has an important test coming up—say in mathematics. He makes a good study plan and follows through on it. So far so good—or seemingly so.  However, when he gets the test back his score is a  D+. The student is stunned: “But I studied so hard!” he says, and can’t understand how all that work amounted to such a poor result.

If this sounds like something you’ve experienced, I recommend you do the following.  First, ask the teacher to schedule time to go over the test with you. When you’re reviewing your answers with the teacher you should be asking the following questions about each “wrong” answer:

(1) Did I understand the question?

(2) Did I know the material?

(3) Did I understand the question but not know how to apply what I studied?

Over the years I’ve found that there’s a pretty even spread amongst those three questions. Sometimes students just don’t understand test questions—questions may be poorly worded and hard to figure out. Another scenario — and this happens all too frequently—students mis-read questions because they are rushing. This is a shame because they actually understsood the question and could have scored points, but instead lost out because they were too hasty. Learn to use the tools for calming down to keep a consistent level of calm throughout the test.

Knowing the material is, of course, essential, for any test. But sometimes students don’t study the right material, or—another common error in test preparation—they put off studying what’s hardest about the subject, giving their time to the easier stuff. This kind of delaying the inevitable always increases stress and usually produces poor results. Always start your studying with the hardest material first.

The third issue—applying the material you have studied—is perhaps the most challenging. Most people equate “learning” with memorizing, thinking that if they memorize everything they’ll do well on the test. While memorizing has its definite and necessary place, a good test will challenge you to use and apply what you’ve memorized, not just spit it back on the answer sheet.  Said another way, you have to be flexible with the material. One way of practicing this while you are studying is to explain the material to someone else; or, with a study-buddy, create questions for each other that require more flexible thinking.

Remember: make your study time valuable by slowing down, tackling the harder stuff first, and making sure you really understand what you’re memorizing. Then you’re really learning and your test scores will reflect it.

Of course, this is all assuming you’ve been using the tools for staying calm, confident and focused!  Those nine tools are the foundation of all top performance

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“Standardized testing has taken the heart out of education”


AnxiousTeenThis past week Lancaster Online ran a story titled, Testing is killing the joy of learning and of teachingwritten by a Baltimore teacher, Wynter Bledsoe. This thoughtful, heartfelt, provocative piece included the following quote:

Standardized testing has taken the heart out of education. No longer are we concerned with meeting the needs of the individual student as a person. We are now concerned with meeting a quota.  It’s all about the data. Students are not numbers; they are blank slates for us to write upon, and we are wasting the opportunity demanding they meet a number instead of meeting their individual full potential. We are squashing their possibilities. We are teaching to a test that caters only to linear thinking.

In my 35 years of clinical practice I have found Ms. Bledsoe’s conclusion to be, unfortunately, all to true. With an emphasis on “the right answer” we have lost connection with a student’s thinking. How did they get to that answer?  I have seen, time and time again, that a student may score a point by checking the “right” box, only to find, on real examination,  that their reasoning was spotty, faulty, or at times, non-existent. When I was trained as a teacher in the late ’60’s in progressive schools in England, we were trained to focus on the child’s process of thinking.  This is the heart of education.  “Education” comes from the Latin root that means “to draw forth.” Giving an answer, “right” or “wrong,” is the tail end of a process — a drawing forth. It is not a number, it’s an engagement — of the student with the material under the watchful guidance and inspiration of a caring, engaged teacher.

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Exam prep, potato chips, and the question of taking breaks


IMG_0864This post is coming from India! My book Test Success! was published here and I am working with the publisher on how to get the book into the hands of students who might not have access to it.  While here I came across an interesting article in in The Hindu, one of the national newspapers. The article cited an international study about the habits of students preparing for the GRE. That is a high stakes exam here in India  as well as in the US., and around the world. The study sited, amongst other things, that Indian students’ favorite snack while studying is potato chips.  The subject of eating and studying tweaked my curiousity because I have long been an advocate of taking measured breaks while studying, but I recommend taking short breaks (5 minutes) and longer ones (30) minutes as part of disciplined study schedule. In brief (I’ll follow up in another post): optimal time for one study “burst” is about 30-40 minutes. Then take a 5 minute break (stretch, bathroom, glass of water), and do two more rounds of 30-40 minute study “bursts” with a short break in between. After you’ve done three rounds with the short break you can take a longer one (up to 30 minutes). At that point you can have your snack (as well as go online, text a friend, etc.– all activities not recommended for short breaks). I’ll elaborate on this in my next post– but just to let you know that eating while studying is not recommended. Why? Do one thing at a time: when you study, study. When you have a potato chip, savor it. Eating while you study is a little taxing on the brain and will lead to more distraction.

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Working with College Advisors


advising3I am frequently contacted by college advisors to work with students who are under-performing on tests because of test anxiety. Today I had the opportunity to speak with members of HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association) in Marin, San Francisco and Sonoma Counties. Hosted by Gael Casner, a college advisor and Past President of HECA, we had a very lively conversation about test stress: what causes it, its consequences,  what students need to do (that college advisors can’t do for them) and how college advisors can help them. If you are a college advisor please contact me as I will start offering trainings in the new year specifically targeted to the needs of college advisors. A most dedicated, engaging group I love to collaborate with!  You truly serve your students.

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“Test Success!” recommended in new, helpful, hit book


perfect-score-projectWhen Test Success! was published in 2012, a press kit was sent out and numerous requests for  information poured in. One came from someone name Debbie Stier, who wanted to interview me. I wasn’t sure if she was connected to a newspaper, a magazine, a radio show or TV program. Turned out: none of the above. She’s an author and a Mom who was neck-deep in writing a book herself. And not just a book, but an unusual, multi-year project:  dedicating years of her life to taking, and retaking (seven times!) the SAT so she could see what it takes to get “the perfect score.”  Debbie is a “mom-with-a-mission.” Her teenage son was SAT-eligible, and, in a most unusually empathetic move, Debbie’s way of supporting him was to go through the same process herself.  Our interview was pointed, lively and, two years later, Debbie’s book, The Perfect Score Project,  is now out and garnering a lot of attention.

On her website page, “Reducing Test Anxiety” she starts off like this:

Start with the following: Buy the book Test Success by Dr. Ben Bernstein. It’s filled with practical techniques that show how to recognize the signs of, and how to combat test anxiety. Dr. Bernstein’s suggestions include breathing and relaxation exercises, uncrossing your arms, keeping both feet on the ground, etc. Definitely worth reading.

Thanks for the recommendation Debbie. I can’t wait to read your book. Stay tuned for my blog post on it.

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