Overcoming Negative Self-Talk
For many, even the sound of the phrase standardized test induces an instantaneous state of discomfort—a mixture of disappointment, defeat and anxiety. For others, a sense of accomplishment, achievement and nearly contagious confidence beam from them when the topic arises. What might explain such contrasting experiences of students who often play on the same sports teams, sit in the same AP classes and sometimes even live in the same house?
I’ve worked with a number of students who labor under the onerous pressure of successful older siblings, extremely high personal expectations, parent expectations, or even peer expectations. Often, when students feel they are falling short of expectations, they find ways to rationalize (or explain away) their poor performance. Phrases like “I’m just not a math person” and “I’ll never be a good test-taker” are examples of self-talk that can be very damaging. Imagine if while you were driving, you continuously said to yourself, “I can’t stay in my lane, traffic is dangerous, an accident at this speed could be fatal, what if my brakes fail.” Eventually, this negative self-talk might begin to decrease your effectiveness on the road. The same effect often happens to students who continually reinforce destructive self-assessments.
Although there are a number of other factors that influence performance, such as content mastery, problem-solving-method mastery, innate ability, prior education and others, my main focus is on the damaging effects of negative self-assessment. The most disappointing phrases I ever hear students say are those that make it sound as if the student has no ability to ever improve. When a student says “I’m just not a math person” what he or she probably means is, “I don’t think I will ever have any success in math.” This is more than likely based on prior experiences of unfavorable outcomes on math tests, quizzes or in class instruction.
When a student reaches a conclusion about his or her own ability, it is usually based on a mixture of prior experience and reflection. However, students often leave out some important ingredients of the discussion. I have a few questions for them. What if math ability and test-taking effectiveness are coachable skills? What if their existing approach to math and/or test-taking could benefit from some adjusting and fine-tuning? What if they don’t have to be permanently banished into the invisible realm of “bad test-taker”?
One highly efficacious way to overcome a prior negative experience with math or test-taking is to replace that negative experience with a positive one. For this to happen, a student must first realize that math and test-taking abilities are acquirable skills for all as well as intrinsic abilities for some. I’ve been able to convince students that these skills are attainable by working with them to create mastery experiences in terms of applying new problem solving strategies. Once students see that the hardest problems on the most intimidating tests are less complicated than they initially appear, a sense of dread can often be replaced with a new sense that “maybe I can do this after all”.