Using Imagination to Perform Better on High Stakes Tests

Note: This post was originally written as a memo to ATS tutors.

I’m doing some research for my Memory and Cognition class, and I found some information that has relevance to our work. I wanted to pass on some info about the mind and how we can better serve our students.

Some of our students have anxiety around high-stakes tests. They envision the worst, they get nervous, they anticipate freaking out, and their fears can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We have several pathways to address student anxiety.  I will briefly mention two and then dive deeper into the third: the power of the imagination.

Mastery Experiences

The most potent pathway to address student anxiety is through building a student’s sense of self-efficacy.  If all a student knows is failure, we need to provide some successes that he/she can lean on and draw upon.  We can provide the student with mastery experiences through the use of mock tests.  We simulate experiences in which a student feels a heightened sense of mastery, the student shifts her self-beliefs, and she can bring a heightened sense of self-efficacy to the real tests.

Healthy Self-Talk

Another important pathway involves the manipulation of a student’s self-talk or self-messaging.  Students can self-sabotage by their own cognitions and their language: “I’m going to bomb this”, “I always do miserable on tests”, “I’m just a bad test-taker”.  These thoughts are directives to the body and to the mind.  We hate being inconsistent.  We will manipulate things, consciously or sub-consciously, in order to avoid being inconsistent.  If we reinforce thoughts of failure, we will manifest the behaviors to make those thoughts an actuality.  So our job is to change the cognitions, shift the self-talk, of our students.  Thought replacement, thought stopping, or conscious self-dialogue are all ways to shift the self-talk.  When the “you are going to fail” voice comes up, you must address it, speak to it, present evidence to the contrary.  Stop the thought, but then replace it with a new one.  The language of possibility is very helpful here.  “I’m open to the possibility of succeeding on this test” is a nice replacement for “I’ve always done poorly on tests.” You do not invalidate or deny a student’s history or past experience, but you make room for something new happening. You can present new evidence of a student’s preparation, the work they have put in.  So when “I’m going to fail” comes up, try on something to the tune of “I have worked hard and put in dozens of hours getting ready for this, I’m more prepared than I’ve been in my life, and I’m open to the possibility of succeeding on this test.” It’s not Pollyanna-esque. The mind has an easier time dealing with this kind of communication, then with a generalized overly-optimistic statement such as: “Everything is going to be great!” Though there is a place for mental self-cheerleading, reasoned inner dialogue seems to be more effective in most instances.

Guided Imagery: Accessing the power of Imagination

The mind, as I’m learning in my Memory and Cognition class, is easily duped. The more I learn about the mind, the weaknesses of memory, the manner in which the mind stores information, the facility in which false memories can be implanted into human memory, the more opportunity I see to help our students.  The mind, in many instances, has a hard time differentiating between what was imagined and what was real.  Human memory is subject to Source Monitoring Errors. The mind can access past information, but often has a difficult time distinguishing the source of the information.  This happens all the time: things you may have read, things you may have heard, things you may have imagined, or even dreamed: there are lots of sources of information out there. The data gets encoded, but over time, the source of the data can get fuzzy.  Where did I read that?  In a magazine? On the net?  Was that from a conversation?  Did I know that or did someone else tell me that?  The mind can easily conflate things you have been exposed to from different sources.  And if you imagine something and reinforce the image, the mind can begin to believe what you imagined is real.

Researchers have found several factors that influence the development of false memory.  When you want to confuse the mind between what was real and what imagined, feed it more sensory data to make that which was imagined seem more real.  The more senses you can engage while imagining something, the more deeply the memory will be encoded in different lobes of the brain.  The sights, the sounds, the feeling: these strengthen the memory traces.  As you are imagining a situation, all the parts of the brain that naturally perform the functions of processing sensory and semantic and narrative data are activated (this has been verified using functional MRI imaging of the brain).  To add another layer, the more emotion you can add to the memory, the deeper the trace, the more profound the encoding. Again, the affective, emotional centers of the brain will make their own memory store.  And repeating the imagined memory deepens the encoding as well. So if you can create the narrative, engage the senses, engage the emotions, and reinforce through repetition, the brain begins to really believe the experience.

This is relevant to our work in that we can help provide our students with alternatives to their memories of poor past experiences in the domain of high stakes testing. Our intention is not to implant false memories in our students, that would be very difficult, if not impossible given the emotional salience of the students memories of past testing experiences, and how recent those memories are for the students.  But we can use the same mechanisms of the brain which can lead to the creation of false memory.

We can spend some time and do cognitive rehearsal with our students.  We can walk our students through a mental rehearsal of success on test day.  We can guide our students to imagine every step of the test day, how it feels, the sights, the sounds, the whole sensory experience, their mental state.  Students can create a mental scene in which they successfully navigate the test day, leading to a satisfactory result.  The more sensory data and emotional data we can activate, the deeper the memory trace we will create. And the more students repeat this mental scene, the more profoundly it will be encoded into memory.

If we can create a new script for the brain, a new mental narrative of performing successfully on a high stakes test, students will be able to pull from this imagined memory when they encounter a new testing event.  When test day comes up, students may be used to drawing upon previous memories of poor performance as a guide for what to do, but we need to give them an alternative.  The narrative of successful performance, which we have helped encode into the memory, will be available to them as well.  Students can begin to actualize the implanted memory of success, rather than relive, recreate and actualize the memory of failure.

So let’s give our students a platform for success.
Boost their confidence through things we say.
Model mastery behaviors for them to emulate.
Address their self-talk and help them reinforce their potential for success.
Provide them with mastery experiences to boost their notions of self-efficacy.
Help them mentally rehearse successful performance using sensory and emotion rich guided imagery/mental rehearsal.

With the right intention and the right tools, we can help our students address their anxiety and achieve success in this, and in many other domains.

Examine the Student’s Personal Narrative

In addition to the guided imagining, another powerful activity is to examine the student’s personal narrative in the domain of academic success. We all craft different narratives about our selves, our identities, our strengths. This starts in early childhood.  Children begin to self-identify with a particular strength: I’m good at X, I’m not so good at Y.  I’m good at coloring, or painting, or dancing, or building things, or listening.  And the converse: I’m not good at sports, I’m not good at singing, I’m not good at school.  We create these self-efficacy statements.  And then these statements take on a life of their own, and they begin to color how we perceive future events, how we integrate future information.  We will seek out confirmatory evidence to reinforce our self-beliefs and ignore or suppress information that is inconsistent with our self-assessment.  Again, that incredible human drive for consistency that guides so many of our behaviors/cognitions.

So a student may take a few data points, a few poor or inconsistent academic performances, and from those data points, deduce that, globally, he/she is simply not good at academics.  Students may ignore the context of those particular instances of poor performance (e.g. I was really tired, sick, or unprepared on those days) or they may privilege feedback from an older, more expert, voice (e.g. my teacher told me I was no good at X, she’s the teacher, she knows better, I must be bad at X).

Students will come to us with these self-narratives, self-efficacy statements neatly tied and packaged.  With confidence, they will array their self-efficacy beliefs before us: “Hi. I’m Daniel.  I’m good at Y.  I stink at X.” And we, as educators,  need to unwrap, unpackage these statements or personal stories, and carefully examine the contents.  Are you really always bad at X?  Has there ever been a singular instance of your achieving success at X?  Are there other domains where you have succeeded at tasks that resemble X?  Is it possible you are privileging instances of failure and ignoring all your instances of success?  This is quite common.  People force reality to fit with their stories.  Elizabeth Loftus, leading researcher and false-memory researcher, writes, “Who we are may be shaped by our memories, but our memories are shaped by who we are and what we have been lead to believe…. We seem to reinvent our memories, and in doing so, we become the person of our own imagination” (Make-believe memories, 2003).

Essentially, we can, through guided imagery, create new mental schema, but we can also tap into student’s actual memories, and reframe students’ personal academic narratives and adjust their self-efficacy statements to conform more with reality.  There is always some success, somewhere in a student’s past that we can draw upon to get them to re-evaluate negative self-efficacy statements.  Life is never so starkly black and white.  Reality always has many shades of gray.  But self-efficacy beliefs have a polarizing effect for how we integrate memory and information.  People with high self-efficacy tend to remember the positive, people with low self efficacy tend to remember the negative.  Luckily, self-efficacy beliefs are infinitely malleable.  We can help students craft new self-beliefs and achieve heightened levels of performance in many domains.

So don’t forget to add this technique to your list when you are working with students and building up their self-efficacy, one of the primary roles of any educator.


  • Exploring the role of repetition and sensory elaboration in the imagination inflation effect, AYANNA K. THOMAS and JOHN B. BULEVICH, ELIZABETH F. LOFTUS
  • The Role of Emotional Elaboration in the Creation of False Memories, SARAH B. DRIVDAHL, MARIA S. ZARAGOZA and DIANNE M. LEARNED

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