How the Best Handle Stress –A First Aid Kit

Scoring Best on All Life’s Tests by Using Your “Whole Brain”

This is an article from the Winter 2020/21 issue of Combat Stress

By Ron Rubenzer, EdD, MA, MPH, MSE, FAIS

If stress is sand in the machinery of thought, then relaxation is the oil.

Advice from the world’s-highest IQ holder: repetition and relaxation (R & R)

Scoring best on tests — from one who has scored best on tests: In line with Dr. Richerson’s tip to repeat what has to be learned, Marilyn vos Savant, who possesses the highest recorded IQ of 228 (average is 100) echoes this advice, that repetition is the best way to learn. Repetition even helps improve understanding, just like seeing a movie more than once, helps us pick up more details and remember what happened better.

  1. Why do well on tests?

Tests are here to stay.

One-hundred-million standardized tests are administered for elementary and middle school children yearly, according to Dr. Peter Cookson, Director of the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation. Doing well on tests is an area of increasing concern both for students and educators. Since tests (which are better than guessing what a person might know) are obviously here to stay, we might as well learn how to master them. Other important reasons to do well on tests follow.

Enjoying a successful 12-year career

Tests are “success benchmarks” during everyone’s 12-year academic career. Used correctly, tests actually serve as “success stepping-stones” rather than as stumbling blocks. Enjoying “test success” both satisfies basic self-concept/ achievement needs and motivates a student to strive for personal excellence.

Triumphing over fear of failure

Fear of academic failure was the leading “most difficult problem” American teenagers faced, according to a 1994 Gallup Poll. Equipping students with proven “test-taking tools” results in real success experiences to triumph over imaginary fears. The confidence built from doing well on tests can then be carried into life’s arena with its many other challenges.

“Proving your knowledge” is power to succeed.

The ladder of success is built with small but measurable steps. A famous scientist once said nothing is really that hard, there are just a lot of little parts. Tests can help measure readiness for the next step toward goals. Also, knowing someone has “proven her knowledge” through testing raises the level of trust in her. The days of self-proclaimed experts are gone. Who would trust a “self-proclaimed” surgeon?

A 100-point SAT score increase: the bottom line for reducing test anxiety.

According to a Columbia University study conducted by Dr. C. H. Faigel, a 100-point gain in taking the SAT (Scholastic Achievement Test) was realized by students whose test anxiety level was clinically reduced. Numerous other studies demonstrate score gains as test anxiety is reduced. As stated above, Ms. Savant lists anxiety as the leading cause of doing poorly on tests even when you have the knowledge.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, a great resource for keeping a calm and cool classroom climate is Inspiring Tranquility: Stress Management and Learning Styles in the Inclusive Classroom, by Rebecca Nunn and Janet Gallaher. The National Education Association, (NEA), the major clearinghouse for educational materials, endorses this book which can be ordered at or 1-800-229-4200.

(“Stress-smartness” — keeping your whole brain working smoothly by relaxing.)

Tips For Helping Students and Adults to Become “Fact-Smart”

(Mastering what needs to be known, a left-brain skill.)

  1. Make meaningful memories by connecting to students’ current interests (e.g., teach how percentages work for predicting rain/snow days). Let them know why they are learning something. (Learning to take tests will help them pass their driver’s license test.)
  2. Teach memory mechanics. The basic rule is repetition, repetition. Teach students that understanding a fact is not the same as mastering a fact, (e.g., one can understand how to shoot baskets without being able to do it). If you want to remember someone’s name, repeat it to yourself several times and then write it down.
  3. Play tricks on your mind with games. Make liberal use of word games, crossword puzzles. If you have the time, take courses having nothing to do with your main course work or job.
  4. Require students to develop their own flashcards and stack the deck with only the memorized facts. Have them submit flashcards as an assignment immediately before the test.
  5. Encourage notetaking while students are reading or listening, especially if the test requires written responses. Teach them “The palest ink is better than the best memory.” Use “post-its.” Develop as many helpful routines as possible, and even leave yourself notes or voicemail. Regarding routines, always put your car keys in the same place.
  6. Divide and conquer information overload by encouraging students to study several short sessions over several days/weeks rather than cramming the night before. Suggest a study calendar and weekly “progress check points” for students. Provide positive feedback on study progress.

Tips on Improving “Test-Smartness”

Facts are necessary but not enough for top performance. Approved practice on such tests as the SAT can improve performance by 500 points. This 500-point improvement was realized by a young man who took the SAT over nine times since the age of twelve, finally achieving a nearly perfect SAT score of 1530.

Developing “test-specific” skills improves test performance by drawing attention to small but important details. Multiple-choice tests all vary greatly on how learned facts and skills are to be used. If you are unsure about the design of tests to be given this year, see your test coordinator. Some general guidelines are:

  1. Answer the question. Answer the core question, without being tripped up by “word traps” (irrelevant details) or generalizations (always, never, everywhere).
  2. Teach students to “pace not race” through test items. Encourage students to answer those questions they feel they know, marking those difficult questions to return to later.
  3. Emphasize that multiple-choice tests are not multiple-guess tests. Teach students to choose, not to guess on multiple choices. This requires mastering problem-solving skills. When offered multiple choices, anticipate the most correct answer before reading available choices. Then look for the best answer among those provided. If all the choices appear to be correct, select the most correct answer by eliminating wrong answers. Develop reasons why the other answers are wrong. Again, students should mark and return to these most difficult questions after answering the more obvious questions. Teachers might effectively demonstrate or model this technique using examples.

An excellent resource is the book dedicated to all aspects of test-taking entitled, Teaching Test Taking Skills: Helping Students Show What They Know, by Scruggs and Mastropieri.

  1. Be clerically correct. Develop the habit of having students build in enough time to check for wrong answers simply due to marking the wrong answers or misreading the questions the first time through.
  2. Provide “test rehearsals” if appropriate. All great performances start with rehearsal. Practice any and only those approved practice tests weeks before the actual test takes place. See your test coordinator for approved pre-test activities. As stated, above Kaplan, Inc. now provides actual practice test sessions for the GRE and LSAT.
  3. Study groups. There is some evidence that hard-working study groups actually work in helping high school students improve test scores. At the high- school level, conscientious study-group students will study harder to contribute to the group and will be exposed to more questioning than they might have thought of on their own. Advanced Placement students have found study groups to be most helpful. Be sure, however, to avoid having students develop “test- banks” by not allowing previous examinees to provide questions they had memorized from actual exams.

Tips to Building “Stress-Smartness”

(An emotional, right brain skill)

Relaxation is oil in the machinery of thought.

Just like your car engine, your brain will soon “freeze-up” or “burnout” without the oil of relaxation. Strong emotions affect clear thinking. Calm, clear thinking is the key to “best test performance.” Over a half-century of test-anxiety research reveals that excessive stress impairs test performance. Relaxation is a “must” for test-score improvement according to a test preparation corporation that guarantees results (up to seventeen-percentile point increase). This is the difference between high average performance and gifted performance.

Herbert Benson, M.D., Harvard researcher who coined the term, “relaxation response,” states that students inducing the “relaxation response” immediately before exams do better. He also found that professionals who relax immediately before brainstorming generate more solutions to problems than those who do not relax. As said before, scared students can’t be smart students.

Preparation for the “big day.”

Also, allow children to wear their favorite school outfit to the test. Have them eat fruit right before the test (Sugar is food for thought). Have them drink a bit of water to speed up the breakdown of the fruit to fructose, which is food for thought. Honey is an excellent source of fructose. Have your child eat toast with honey before they leave for the test site. Caffeine is at best a double-edged sword. Only if you are already a “caffeinist” (Caffeine is the most popular drug in the U.S.) will caffeine help your mental performance. While it can sharpen your thinking (no more than two cups of coffee), you pay for it with caffeine jitters. If you don’t use caffeine, don’t start. Avoid having children drink sugary drinks or eat candy bars right before testing because of the unsteady flow of sugar provided by these foods.

The following suggestions may be useful to reduce excessive stress:

Weeks before the test:

  1. Conduct a “reality checklist” of what the student can expect in the testing situation. This will reduce stressful “surprise or shock reactions.” (Always follow pre-test restrictions on what can be shared with students prior to testing.)
  2. Prior to the testing situation, provide a “relaxed exposure” to these “test reality conditions” as much as possible. That is, see your test coordinator on legitimate practice materials, and have students relax just before and during the “test warm-up” sessions.
  3. Accentuate the positive: Expect your best but respect the test. Think of the test as a reward to show off your hard work and knowledge. It is important for the student to have a positive attitude, but this attitude must be combined with positive action, (i.e., thorough study beforehand).
  4. Positive peer pressure: Use the power of peer pressure to develop a “pregame” winning spirit toward an upcoming test. Students could create posters on the rewards for doing well on tests. Have students bring in appropriate cartoons about test-taking.
  5. Good modeling by all adults: Students will catch adults’ anxiety about tests and this “secondary stress” can hamper their peak performance. Even the tone of voice used in reading pre-test and test instructions will raise or lower test anxiety. Modeling “grace under pressure” in front of students will show it is possible to stay calm and succeed under stressful conditions.
  6. Relaxation training: See your mental-health professional on relaxation training tips or methods to identify children at risk for excessive test anxiety. It typically takes several weeks to learn how to relax under testing conditions.

The best way to learn relaxation is through biofeedback. Biofeedback works like training wheels to help you keep your balance when you are first starting. Biofeedback gives you live, scientific feedback on whether you are “centered” in terms of relaxation. HeartMath, in Boulder Creek, California, provides the best personnel, training, and tools to teach and learn biofeedback. Other forms of relaxation training, such as progressive relaxation, breathing relaxation, autogenic training, systematic desensitization, visualization, and other techniques are available from appropriately trained mental-health personnel. It usually takes several weeks for your muscle memory to learn to relax, so if a test is given in October, start teaching relaxation in September. Think of relaxation training as learning an athletic skill. Just because you understand the concept doesn’t mean you have mastered the skill.

  1. Pre-test checklist.

General Tips for Helping Students to Become “Fact-Smart”

  • Make these tips part of each student’s study habits by introducing them at the beginning.
  • Get the “big picture” (Overview first, read the end of chapter questions first).
  • “Seeing is believing” for most students. “Teach smart” (visually). See “Anti- Boredom ‘Whole-Brain’ Balanced Approach to Curriculum, (p. 207).
  • Make meaningful memories.
  • Teach memory mechanics. Repeat info at least seven times.
  • Students develop flashcards. Submit flashcards as an assignment immediately before the test.
  • Encourage notetaking while students are reading or listening.
  • Divide and conquer information using more frequent, shorter, study periods spread over time.
  • If appropriate, provide a test-specific diagnostic survey.
  • As a reward, have students play “not-so-trivial pursuit” by making up their own questions about the material.
  • Celebrate “sticking to their test-prep schedule.”

Tips for Improving “Test-Smartness”

  • Answer the questions (Multiple-choice tests are not multiple-guess tests, but use creative problem solving if needed).
  • Be clerically correct.
  • Provide practice sessions (with time limits) if appropriate.

Building “Stress-Smartness”

Weeks before the test:

  • Conduct a “reality checklist” of what the student can expect to avoid shock on test day.
  • Prior to the testing situation, provide a “relaxed exposure” to these “test reality conditions.”
  • Positive attitude: Expect the best but respect the test. The test is the reward to prove your knowledge. “Inch by inch anything’s a cinch.” “Yard by yard, life is hard.”
  • Use positive peer pressure: Bring in cartoons about testing stress — I took an IQ test and the results were negative.
  • Good modeling by all adults.
  • Relaxation training (See your mental health professional. Clear this with administration first).


Ron Rubenzer, EdD, MA, MPH, MSE, FAIS is a Contributing Editor with The American Institute of Stress. He holds a doctorate and two master’s degrees from Columbia University in New York City. He won a doctoral fellowship to attend the Columbia University’s Leadership Education Program. While serving as a school psychologist at Columbia, he won a national student research prize of the year for an article written on the brain. Dr. Rubenzer worked at the Washington DC Office of Education. Also, while at Columbia University, he wrote an article for New York Magazine on enhancing children’s development of their full potential. He has devoted his career to specializing in “reducing stressing-during testing” for better outcomes. He has worked as a stress manager for a hospital-based cardiac/stroke rehabilitation facility and their Employee Assistance Program. He also coordinated a wellness program for a large school system. He is a fellow with The American Institute of Stress and writes focus articles on “using stress to do one’s best” at home, work, and school. He has also conducted speaking engagements for conferences and presented for a number of television shows. His latest book is How the Best Handle Stress – Your First Aid Kit

Combat Stress Magazine

Combat Stress magazine is written with our military Service Members, Veterans, first responders, and their families in mind. We want all of our members and guests to find contentment in their lives by learning about stress management and finding what works best for each of them. Stress is unavoidable and comes in many shapes and sizes. It can even be considered a part of who we are. Being in a state of peaceful happiness may seem like a lofty goal but harnessing your stress in a positive way makes it obtainable. Serving in the military or being a police officer, firefighter or paramedic brings unique challenges and some extraordinarily bad days. The American Institute of Stress is dedicated to helping you, our Heroes and their families, cope with and heal your mind and body from the stress associated with your careers and sacrifices.

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