I Studied, So Why Does My Mind Go Blank When I Take a Test?

student taking a test mind blank

Do you spend a lot of time and energy preparing for a test only to feel like your mind goes blank once you start the assessment? This is a common experience. It happens because of the way our brain takes in, stores, and then recovers learned information. There are three phases to learning and remembering something new: acquisition, consolidation, and retrieval. Acquisition happens when you encounter a new piece of information. Consolidation is when experiences, especially those linked to strong emotions, are encoded and stored. Retrieval is when the information is pulled from “storage” and you remember it later.

When we experience short-term stress as a result of test anxiety, our brain activates a fight or flight response. This affects memory by inhibiting the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of our brain responsible for retrieval. As a result, we can not remember, during that moment, what we learned previously. Some stress, for example timing yourself while taking a practice test, may actually help with memory. However, when this stress becomes excessive or is more than we encountered while practicing, it is counterproductive to memory.

So how can we avoid the experience of blanking out on our next test? We have to keep our anxiety and stress level under control. There are several strategies that help us do this:

Exercise to Lessen Anxiety and  Improve Sleep Patterns

Exercise can produce chemical changes in your brain that are linked to reduced anxiety.  Increasing your well-being and decreasing your anxiety level can lead to better memory. Exercise also helps to create more regular sleep patterns, which can assist with greater levels of memory.

Try to make the conditions when you study similar to those in which you will be testing.

Make Practice Conditions Like Test Conditions

Having a new experience or an unpleasant surprise can be a stressor. Try to make your test-preparation as similar to your testing experience as possible. You can do this by finding out what your test will look like and then creating and taking a practice test. You can also prepare in an environment that is similar to your testing environment. So, if you will test at a desk with bright lighting, prepare at a desk with bright lighting. In addition, try to make the conditions when you study similar to those in which you will be testing. If your test is timed, time your practice until you are comfortable completing the number of required items in the given time period. Consider making your practice even a bit more stressful or difficult than you think the test will be. This could create relief as opposed to anxiety at seeing the actual exam on test day.

Learn Yoga, Meditation, and Breathing Techniques to Counteract the Stress Response

On test day, when you begin to feel anxious it can help to know deep breathing, stretching or centering techniques that can be used to regain focus and balance. Stress can have a long-term impact on your body. Changing how you respond to stress will not only help you remember more but also will help you stay healthier in the long-run.

-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC


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