Neuroscience and College Admission Tests

By August 22, 2014 October 14th, 2014 ACT, SAT, SAT Subject Tests


In the fall of 2013, I had the pleasure of attending the national conference for the Association of Educational Therapists (AET). While there, I listened in on the keynote speaker, Dr. Sian Beilock, who shared her research on the human brain, anxiety, and the interplay of the two during test-taking. Dr. Beilock is a professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and has spent many years investigating the neuroscience behind ‘choking’: performing below our potential when it matters most, especially on high-stakes college admission tests like the SAT.

Below, I discuss some of my favorite research by Dr. Beilock in her most recent book – Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To – as well as some practical tools for combatting choking on standardized tests.

The Predicament of Math Anxiety and Gender

In 2005, during a national symposium on economic research, the president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, made a famously indelicate pronouncement. Summers stated that men outnumbered women in the sciences – particularly in careers related to these fields – simply because there are more men with the skills and desire to fill these positions.

Feminist scholars critiqued Summers (to put it lightly) for excluding the effects of gender socialization on the professional choices of women. Additionally, dissenters argued that the tests central to measuring math and science achievement in the field of education (esp. college admission) do not accurately reflect the abilities of women. For instance, the well-researched phenomenon of stereotype threat shows that if a member of a stereotyped group is merely aware of the prejudices against her, her performance will suffer regardless of whether or not she endorses the stereotype. In Dr. Beilock’s book, she reviews a number of studies where highly gifted women underperform on the math section of the SAT, solely because they are mindful of gender-based prejudices about math ability.

One of Dr. Beilock’s most interesting insights derived from her investigation of math anxiety and its genesis in schools. During her speech, she joked about how math ability is one of the few areas in which it is socially acceptable (even encouraged!) to be totally inept.

To test her cultural assumptions about math, she administered a number of surveys that measured the math anxiety of undergraduates across different majors. Surprisingly, the individuals who reported the greatest amount of math anxiety were in pursuit of degrees in elementary education and teaching. In other words, undergraduates most likely to become the next generation of K12 teachers were also the MOST math-averse.

Dr. Beilock went on to say that math anxiety is often modeled by female teachers and inherited by their same-sex students. She argued that boys, however, have math modeled by older males in a way that diminishes math anxiety and fosters creative approaches to problem-solving.*

*Note: Dr. Beilock’s findings clearly have exceptions. Many of us can point to talented women who unlocked the complexities of math and science in our own classrooms. That being said, the rampant patterns in Dr. Beilock’s research bear major significance for administrators, teachers, and policymakers in schools.

Memory and Choking

At the crux of research on ‘choking’ is memory and how it is utilized during high-stakes performances. On the one hand, there are particular tasks that require a large amount of working memory to be performed effectively. Dr. Beilock defines working memory as the ‘cognitive horsepower that allows us to hold information in our minds while simultaneously completing other tasks.’ Being able to multi-task in the office, solve a complex word problem, or remember the food preferences of a fussy table all require strong working memory. If working memory is overwhelmed by stress, emotion, or negative stereotypes (like in the math example above), the capacity to attend to the desired task is impaired.

In contrast, procedural memory, the unconscious ability to execute automatic physical tasks, can be just as important as working memory. Unlike working memory, which is housed in the frontal lobe of the brain, procedural memory arises from activity in non-verbal regions, like the occipital and parietal lobes. Consequently, activities that require little conscious thought – like brushing your teeth, juggling a soccer ball, and sinking a putt on the golf course – hinge on the powers of procedural memory.

To avoid choking, you must discern if the situation warrants working memory, procedural memory, or a combination of both. If the task requires holding multiple steps in one’s head – like the layers of a word problem on the SAT – working memory is more important. However, if the activity requires complicated, minute physical actions – like the precise chopping and stirring of a busy sous chef – procedural memory is emphasized.

According to Beilock, the goal of any good anti-choking strategy is the emphasis of either working or procedural memory, and the de-emphasis of the opposing type of memory. For example, a Nascar driver who must execute a series of quick shifts and pedal changes should let procedural memory take over and avoid thinking about the positioning of his hands and feet (working memory). Conversely, a dramatic actor trying to maintain his mental script and follow the cues of his peers (working memory) should be able to diffuse the excitement and distracting stimuli of being on stage.

Test Preparation: Utilizing Working and Procedural Memory

Although the reasoning required by the SAT and ACT fit squarely in the realm of working memory, successful tutoring involves the interaction of both working and procedural elements. To save cognitive horsepower, Compass students practice multi-step procedures that minimize the mental clutter caused by complicated math and reading problems. For example, when tackling dense passage-based readings, students learn to actively read and scan for key information – a procedural tactic – which then simplifies the process of remembering the passage, analyzing information, and answering related questions – a task of working memory.

Anti-Choking Tips for Standardized Tests

Here is a short list of test-taking strategies that incorporate Dr. Beilock’s research on choking:

  • Practice under (low) pressure: Take multiple proctored practice tests to simulate the stressors of the testing environment. Over time, the routine of taking the exam will encode into procedural memory. Compass tutors often use sports metaphors to explain the phenomenon of procedural memory and test-taking – for instance, a pitcher learning to throw a curve ball must throw a 1,000 pitches before the technique becomes automatic; similarly, a student hoping to master the most challenging geometry problems may need to complete hundreds of practice exercises to ensure success on test day.
  • Outsource your ‘cognitive horsepower.’ Working memory is akin to a mental whiteboard. Each person has a limit to the number items she can write on her whiteboard. Some folks are lucky and have super-expansive whiteboards; others have smaller whiteboards that are populated with squiggles of distracting thoughts and anxiety. To keep your working memory clear for more difficult problems, use the test booklet to write down intermediate steps, cross out answer choices, and circle important information. Careless mistakes often occur when your whiteboard gets muddled, so use the test as an external memory source.
  • Write about your worries. Writing for ten minutes about your worries on the day of the official test can thwart anxieties and self-doubt. This can be particularly helpful for social groups who are susceptible to stereotype threat. In Dr. Beilock’s research, she found that when test-takers wrote about their anxieties, they were able to develop empathy for themselves, tone down negative self-perceptions, and see themselves within a greater mosaic of self- concept – i.e. “My test scores are an incredibly small part of who I am, so I’m not going to sweat it if I perform poorly on exam day.”

As the field of neuroscience expands, it behooves test prep companies to take notice of the latest research. Acing college admission tests is equal parts content mastery and cognitive resilience, so test prep curricula should contain commensurate amounts of both elements.

Matty Steiner

About Matty Steiner

Prior to joining Compass, Matty obtained their MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from UC Santa Cruz. They have over a decade of experience in the field of test preparation, having worked as an instructor, consultant, and keynote speaker on the topic of admission testing.


  • Jochebed says:

    hello, I am about to apply to neuroscience major but I don’t know which subject test I should take. I was about to take Math level II, Physics and chemistry. but then people recommend me to take biology instead of physics. what shall I do.

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