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Thinking aids — do you freeze up and cannot remember?

Fri, 30 Sep 2016 20:16:00
5 / 5 (3 Votes)
Article by:
Erik Peper, PhD
Math performance graph courtesy of Erik Piper, PhD.
“I opened the exam booklet and I went blank.”

“When I got anxious, I took a slow breath, reminded myself that I would remember the material. I successfully passed the exam.”
  
Blanking out on an exam or forgetting the memorized information can be a common experience of students even when they have worked hard to master the material. The experience of not recalling the information may be caused by poor study habits. Students often study while simultaneously listening to music, responding to text messages, or monitoring social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest.
   
Other students study the material for one class, then shift immediately and study material from another class. While at home they study while sitting or lying on their bed. In addition, students have covertly incorporated cultural or familial inductions which state that math is difficult and/or that they do not have the aptitude for this material. These beliefs and dysfunctional study habits limit learning.
   
Blanking out on an exam or class presentation is usually caused by fear or performance anxiety, which triggers a stress response. At that moment, the brain is flooded with thoughts such as, “I can’t do it” or “I will fail,” or “What will people think?” The body responds as if you are being threatened for survival, and emotional reactivity and anxiety overwhelms cognition — resulting in an automatic “freeze” response of breath-holding or very shallow breathing. At that moment, you blank out.
   
Experience the effect of how breathing affects your thinking.  Do the following practice with another person.
   
Have the person ask you a question, and the moment you hear the beginning of the question, gasp as if you are shocked or surprised.  React just as quickly and automatically as you would when you see a car speeding towards you.  At that moment of shock or surprise, you do not think; you don not spend time identifying the car or look at who is driving. You reflexively and automatically jump out of the way. Similarly, when asked to answer the question, act as if you are as shocked or surprised to see a car racing towards you.
   
Practice gasping at the onset of hearing the beginning of the question such as, “What day was it yesterday?” At the onset of the sound, gasp as if startled or afraid. During the first few practices, many people wait until they have heard the whole phrase before gasping.  This would be similar to seeing a car racing towards you and first thinking about the car; at that point you would be hit. Repeat this a few times till it is automatic.
   
Now change the breathing pattern from gasping to slow breathing, and practice this for a few times.
   
When you hear the beginning of the question, breathe slowly and then exhale.” Inhale slowly for about 4 seconds while allowing your abdomen to expand, and then exhale softly for about five or six seconds.  Repeat practicing slow breathing in response to hearing the onset of the question until it is automatic.
   
Now repeat the two breathing patterns (gasping and slow breathing) while the person asks you a subtraction or math question, such as “Subtract 7 from 93.”  
   
In our research with more than 100 college students, we found that students had significantly more difficulty, as well as self-reported anxiety, in solving math problems when gasping than during slow breathing, as shown Figure 1.

“When I gasped, my mind went blank; I could not process the simple subtraction. When I breathed slowly, I had no problem doing the subtractions. I never realized that breathing had such a big effect upon my performance.” — A 20 year old college student
   
Thus, when you are stressed and blank out, take a slow diaphragmatic breath to improve performance; however, it is only effective if you previously studied the materials effectively. To improve effective learning, incorporate the following concepts when studying.

1.  Approach learning with a question.  When you begin to study the material or attend a class, ask yourself a question that you would like to be answered.  When you have a purpose, it is easier to stay emotionally present and remember the material.

2.  Process what you are learning with as many sensory cues as possible.  Take handwritten notes when reading the text or listening to your teacher. Afterwards meet with your friends in person or on Skype, and again discuss and review the materials.  As you discuss the materials, add comments to your notes. Do not take notes on your computer because people can often type almost as quickly as someone speaks. The notes are not processed and are more like a court or medical transcriptionist, where the information flows from the ears to the fingers without anything staying in the brain.  College students who take notes in class on a computer or tablets perform worse on exams than students who write notes. When you write your notes you have to process the material and extract and synthesis relevant concepts.

3.  Review the notes and material before going to sleep. Research has demonstrated that whatever material is in temporary memory before going to sleep will be more likely be stored in long term memory. This means that when you study something so that it is now stored in temporary memory, and then you study something else, the first material tends to displaced by the more recent material and is what is stored in long term memory. This means that after studying do not watch movies, or text because whatever is the most recent material that is in your temporary memory — and most importantly to you, is preferentially processed first into permanent memory during sleep. Thus friends, just before you go to sleep, discuss and review the materials.

4.  Learning is state dependent.  Study and review the materials under similar conditions as those in which you will be tested. Without awareness, the learned content is covertly associated with environmental, emotional, social and kinesthetic cues.  Thus, when you study in bed, the material is most easily accessed while lying down. When you study with music, the music becomes a retrieval trigger. Without knowing the materials encoded with the cues of lying down and your bed room or the music you are playing in the background, when you come to the exam room, none of the cues are there — thus, it is harder to remember.  

5.  Avoid interruptions. When studying, each time you become distracted by answering a text message or responding to social media, your concentration is disrupted. Imagine that learning is like scuba diving, and the learning occurs mainly at the bottom. Each interruption forces you to go to the surface, and it takes time to dive down again. Therefore, you learn much less than if you stayed at the bottom the whole time.

6  Develop a ritual for studying.  Do a ritual before beginning the studying and repeat it during the studying — such as three slow breaths.  This way the ritual becomes a structure cue associated with the learned material. When you come to exam and you do not remember or are anxious, perform the same ritual which will allow easier access to the memory.

7.  Change your internal language.
What we overtly or covertly say and believe is what we become.  When you say, “I am stupid,” or “I can’t do math, and besides my mother also could not do math,” or “It is too difficult to learn,” you become powerless — which increases your stress and inhibits cognitive function. Instead, change your internal language so that it implies that you can master the materials, such as, “I need more time to study and practice the material,” or “Learning just takes time, and at this moment for me it may take a bit longer than for someone else.”
   
Take charge of your study habits, and practice slower breathing during studying and test-taking. Similar to many of our students, you may experience a significant improvement in learning, remembering, accessing and processing information.
  
Eirk Peper is a professor at San Francisco State University in the College of Health and Social Sciences. He may be contacted by email at epeper@sfu.edu, or erikpeper@gmail.com. More information can also be found on his website at www.biofeedbackhealth.org, or on his blog at https://peperperspective.com/.

 
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