Focus and Standardized Tests

Katya , 05-06-2018

I always tell my students that we get good at what we practice. If you practice playing a musical instrument, you get better at playing it. If you practice watching Netflix every night, you get better at watching Netflix. If you eat hot dogs after school, you get better at eating hot dogs.

If you practice procrastinating, you get better at procrastinating. If you constantly practice getting distracted, you're essentially getting better at being distracted.

It’s not news to you that standardized tests (such as the ACT, SAT, ISEE, TOEFL, TASCH, COOP, GMAT, MCAT, Series 7, LSAT, RE Broker Exam, and many others) require students to stay laser-focused for an extensive period of time. Some tests take about 3 hours while other tests may take up to several days! The time is relative to every test. Somehow, lots of my new students believe that they don’t need any addional training on focus. They think that they will be able to stay focused during the test and pay attention to all the details just because it’s a high-stakes test. They think as if there is a magic focus-on button in their brain.

But the truth is that the majority of time we spend working (just shy of 9 hours every day for an average American) this kind of concentration is out of reach. Especially in the office environment or at school. David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, has discovered that we are truly focused on our work for a mere 6 hours per WEEK.

What’s more, Rock’s studies reveal that 90% of people do their best thinking outside of the office or classroom and most people focus best either in the morning or late at night. That's exactly the opposite of what our work and school schedules dictate us. It feels like our evolution and the biological design in our brain is working against us, keeping us unfocused.

Losing focus is actually natural and desirable - it’s an evolutionary system meant to keep us safe. It’s happens when your brain is noticing things that might need your attention. Evolution requires your concentration to break when something is either dangerous or rewarding.

That leads to extra struggle during standardized tests. Untrained students use a lot of their mind power to maintain focus. That same mind power could be used for concentrating on a reading a passage, carefully reading questions, and eliminating incorrect answer choices. In other words, not knowing how to focus, especially in stressful situations like exams, comes at a high price of lost points on standardized tests.

The thing is, once your focus is broken, it can take up to 25 minutes to return to the original task, according toa Gloria Mark, professor at the University of California, Irvine. Other studies say that it takes around 5 minutes to refocus, while others say 15.

You might think that these frequent interruptions are often external — from classmates, colleagues, phone calls, text messages, or emails — but actually we interrupt ourselves around 44% of the time, according to Gloria Mark’s research. How many times do you catch yourself switching from one topic to another, without any external pressure. Every time you don’t finish a task and switch to another one, you train yourself getting distracted half way. Are we destined to focus on one task at a time for only a few minutes?

It turns out that the human mind is able to focus on any given task for up to 2 HOURS (after which it needs a 20-30 minute break to recharge). So why aren’t we living up to this potential?

Multitasking has trained our brains to be unfocused. A Stanford study that compared light and heavy multitaskers has shown that heavy multitaskers have more difficulty ignoring irrelevant cues.

In a work culture where “workaholic” is still somewhat of a compliment, multitasking can make us feel that we’re accomplishing more than we actually are. What’s more, a small study suggests that multitasking makes us feel good, even at the cost of our cognitive needs. And here’s one more thing you can blame on multitasking: it makes us STUPID. It's not uncommon to see that some of my new students begin to multitask while taking a test and attempt to solve 2 or 3 questions at once and end up making careless mistakes.

David Rock of the NeuroLeadership institute says that multitasking actually drops our IQ, causing us to make errors and miss subtle cues. Once students realize that multitasking on a test comes at a high cost, they eventually teach themselves to single task and stay focused and work more quickly.

But how can you learn the skills of focus? Can you practice being focused? I recommend practicing focus outside of the test taking environment. Focus is a skill. There is a particular brain chemistry involved when we focus on one task. Personally, I just love when I am focusing on something and I get very antsy when I am not focused. It hasn’t always been that way. I had to practice being focused for it to become effortless — and even a desirable state of mind.

I often recommend to practice focus daily while doing homework or regular work. According to "Learning by neural reassociation" from Nature, our behavior is dictated by how our mind is set up and in order to change, we need to rearrange how our neural networks are built. The best way to rework your neural network is BEHAVIOR. I know that this sounds like a catch 22 — in order to change your behavior, you need to change your behavior. But this is the best way known to science, how many people have been able to rewire their brain from addictions, OCDs, and PTSDs. They repeatedly did something different, instead of the undesired behavior. Every time you don’t interrupt yourself and stay on task instead, you teach your brain something different. For example, when the urge to drink an alcoholic drink comes up for an addict— to drink or to smoke — they don't drink. They answer an urge with inaction! When you catch yourself wanting to get a distraction, you start by becoming aware of an urge to get distracted and then you bring yourself back to the task you are currently working on. TRUST ME, you will teach your brain something new when you stop interrupting yourself. Allow me to introduce you to the Pomodoro Technique.

The Pomodoro Technique is an answer to combating procrastination, training your brain to focus, and getting things done. Designed by entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo and named the most popular productivity method by Lifehacker's Alan Henry. Here's an outline of the technique:

  • Create an extensive to-do list.
  • Pick a task that is both urgent and important and something that you may find yourself procrastinating on.
  • Get very clear on what needs to be done to complete this task (example: do research on Google scholar for 10 minutes; create an outline for the paper, then submit to teacher).
  • Get a timer (there are timers that are specifically made for using the Pomodoro Technique; most of my clients now own one).
  • Set the timer for 25 minutes.
  • Start working.
  • When you find yourself getting distracted (checking your phone, email, opening irrelevant tabs, checking whether there is anything in the fridge/on the stove), simply acknowledge it and get back to your task at hand.
  • Pro Tip: For some of you, it will be really hard to remain focused on one task because we trained our brain to think about several things at a time. And now, about 25 thoughts fight for oxygen every single minute. One of those thoughts could be something urgent and even valid ("I have to check when my daughter needs to be picked up from school today.") This is an urgent task that seems like it's worth interrupting your flow and quickly checking your phone, but I suggest that you resist the temptation. As we discussed earlier, interruptions are costly to the brain, and if you interrupt yourself, you just keep getting better at interrupting. Instead, simply write it down ("Check pickup time for Salley.") and attend to it later after your 25-minute period is over. 99% of your urgent interruption thoughts can wait 25 minutes.
  • I encourage you to use the allocated time to focus on working or studying EXCLUSIVELY.
  • Once the timer rings, stop focusing and do something else.
  • Take a quick 5-minute break (after every 4 Pomodoros, you will receive one 15-minute break).
  • Reset the timer and work on the previous task or switch to another one.

And that's about it. The key behind the Pomodoro is that it forces you to work and focus. You can't do anything else. It helps train your brain to focus on only one task and do nothing else.

A study published in Revista Prâksis found that roughly 64% of the students in their study found the Pomodoro Technique to be a credible way of combating procrastination. That's almost twice the amount when compared to Lifehacker's 37%. According to the study, the reason why the Pomodoro Technique is so effective lies in its innate simplicity. Because the technique is so easy to implement, students can learn to focus under any circumstances. All that is needed is a clock or a timer. This technique can be applied to meditation, work, school, research, and any other part of life.

The Pomodoro Technique is designed to getting everyone to focus on one chore. It is one of the best ways to train your brain to focus for any standardized test. However, you don't need to be an expert right away. According to Belle Beth Cooper in her article "The best productivity system for procrastinators is to work with your natural tendencies," Cirillo himself has gone on record saying that you may need roughly 7 to 20 days to become a master of Pomodoros. We can also assume that it takes about 7 - 20 days of deliberate practice with Pomodoros to rewire your brain to focus.

Allow me to reiterate that. Any standardized test requires you to focus on what is on the test. You do not get to play around. You get to deal with what is on the test and what you know about the information. The tests are often designed to give you every detail you need to know in order to solve the problems. The trouble for most students is that they are not trained to stay focused and find necessary information in a given time constraint. If you had an unlimited amount of time and multiple attempts to solve problems on a given exam, you would probably get a perfect score. In reality, the test only gives you a limited amount of time. Moreover, it requires you to use that time properly. You cannot get a question wrong on the test and then get more time to go and fix it. Your time is fixed and will not change regardless of your performance. That is why you need to train your brain to focus. That's why the Pomodoro Technique is so vital to preparing for each and every standardized test.

Study.com's article, "Does the Pomodoro Technique Help Children with ADHD?" Michele Vrouvas takes an in-depth at how the tomato-based time technique can help students manage their time. She gives a list of effects the technique has on individuals, helping them learn how to plan, prioritize, and complete tasks while being motivated and avoid wasting time. She also references ADHD expert, speaker, educational consultant, and best-selling author, Sandra F. Rief, M.A., saying that the Pomodoro Technique helps to provide the kind of skills children need to overcome ADHD and perform better in academics.

By using the Pomodoro Technique, you train your brain to focus. After ample practice, focus process become automatic, with walking and driving. You develop new neurological pathways that help your brain to focus for extended periods of time WITHOUT using any additional brain power. The Pomodoro Technique helps you save energy that would be otherwise used on focusing. It helps you focus on the test instead of focusing on having to focus.

With that extra brain energy, your freed up mind power can be used towards analyzing the question, seeing exactly what the question was asking, and figuring out the one and only answer choice that fits a particular question. To reiterate the Pomodoro Technique, here is an approximate schedule of Pomodoros I recommend for a typical evening of homework:

  1. Step 1. Write Down All You Need to Get Done.
  2. Step 2. Prioritise in the order of urgency.
  3. Step 3. Decide what you will work on tonight and schedule the rest of your work in your calendar.
  4. Step 4. Set a Pomodoro Time for 25 minutes and begin working.
  5. Step 5. Take a five-minute break. Make sure you get up from your chair and walk around.
  6. Step 6: Get back into your chair and continue studying for another 25 minutes.
  7. Step 7. Take a five-minute break. Try to recall what you have been studying during POMODORO #1. What did you learn? Decide for yourself how much longer you have to study for. It’s important that you also look at something alive during your break and reset the visual sketchpad of your brain.

However, do not take my word for it. The technique was praised by both the Harvard Business Review and the New York Times.

In an interview with The Knowledge Project, Oakland University Professor of Engineering Barbara Oakley described the Pomodoro Technique as "fantastic." She goes on to mention how it helps stop anything from disturbing you for a set amount of time. Another highlight of the technique is how it teaches you to "reward yourself," to go do something as a reward for hard work after taking time to focus. Professor Oakley utilizes Pomodoros to help her study and read, helping her to intently focus on a given project.

If you're looking for more information on the Pomodoro Technique, I would recommend reading Cirillo's aptly named "The Pomodoro Technique," Lifehacker's "Productivity 101: A Primer to The Pomodoro Technique," or "Procrastination Hacks - The Pomodoro Technique" by blogger João Ribeiro. In the article, Ribeiro gives an in-depth guide to using the technique. In the same article, he also provides 3 reasons for applying the Pomodoro Technique to your daily life:

  • It helps to reduce your brain from burning out.
  • It helps to decrease distractions from affecting your work and study.
  • It allows you to keep life and work in harmony.

But if I were you, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time reading about the simple method. Just do it and see for yourself how staying focused can be FUN!