Ace your Next Exam with this Skill (it has nothing to do with studying more)

Getting to grips with your wandering mind with mindfulness training can help you focus and improve your test-taking ability

When you take a test, you’re up against a lot of demons that can affect your score. You might be anxious, you might have not studied, or you find the class so challenging that all you can do is wear your lucky socks and hope for the best.

But there’s a powerful way to boost test scores that doesn’t involve opening a book — and no, it has nothing to do with lucky socks.

The answer is mindfulness training. Mindfulness is a mental state of nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, along with thoughts, feelings, and physical senses. Cultivating mindfulness improves verbal comprehension skills and short-term memory in a way that measurably translates to higher exam scores.

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, demonstrated just this by showing that students who went through only 2 weeks of mindfulness training did better by an equivalent of 16 percentile points on the GRE reading comprehension test (the standardized test in the US and other parts of the world for entry to graduate programs) — a huge leap for very little time investment.

In this study, they put 24 college students through a 2-week mindfulness training course. The students practiced focusing on sensory processes — sound, touch, taste, breath — and on interpreting their own thoughts differently. Rather than getting “caught up” and turning a scary thought into a train of anxious ideas and feelings, they learned how to recognize a thought, acknowledge it, and then let it go.

After the training, the students took two tests. They did the reading comprehension portion of the GRE, which assesses verbal reasoning skills. They also took a test that assessed their working memory capacity. Researchers also surveyed them throughout about what they were thinking about at random points in time, to check how often they experienced distracting thoughts.

These students performed better on working memory tests and the GRE reading comprehension by 16 percentile points compared with students who took a class on nutrition instead of mindfulness. And the mindfulness group also showed less mind wandering.

The researchers believe that this reduction in mind wandering resulted in better test taking.

Here’s why. Scientists attribute mind wandering to a part of the brain called the default mode network (DMN). This means that the default for humans is to have a wandering mind that jumps from thought to thought, and that the DMN is “on” unless we’re able to focus our attention. It correlates with activation in parts of the brain that are responsible for self-referential thoughts.

One study showed that experienced meditators are able to quiet these parts of the brain while they meditate, compared to people who are inexperienced at meditation. Luckily, you don’t have to take to the hills and become a monk to get meditation experience, reduce distracting thoughts, and earn straight A’s. The UC Santa Barbara study indicates that just 2 weeks can make a difference.

(And if you haven’t taken a test in years and certainly don’t plan to, here’s a tip for you. Activation of the default mode network, and the resulting self-referential thoughts and mind wandering, are correlated with unhappiness too. So it’s definitely worth taking a closer look at mindfulness even if you’re not a student to improve your daily happiness.)

Give it a shot:

  • Learn more about your wandering mind and how to be mindful of wandering thoughts without getting carried away by them.
  • Before a test, spend 5 minutes doing deep breathing meditation. Sit in a comfortable supported position, breathe deeply into your diaphragm, and pay attention to your breath. One study reports that students who practiced this experienced less stress, self-defeating thoughts, and anxiety about exams.
  • Try Headspace meditation, a daily 10-minute meditation session on your phone or computer, to become an experienced meditator one day at a time.

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