Mindfulness and top performance on the GRE: focus is the mother of excellence

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

All right. So, Dr. Orion.

Orion: Yes, sir.

Davis: So, we’ve talked about in the past, the emotional coping that sometimes people go through when they’re taking their test. And that can be a significant kind of minefield or environment to navigate when taking the test.

Orion: Well, it just decreases your efficiency and your overall effectiveness, right? So, there are tools that we have, such as mindfulness practices, that can help alleviate that and keep us focused for top performance.

Davis: So, talk to me a little bit about how mindfulness, increased mindfulness practices in the context of the GRE, can increase our performance.

Orion: Oh, it’s huge. Mindfulness is extremely important to top performance on the GRE and in many other domains of life, right. I often say that there are really three steps to getting a perfect score on the GRE. The first is getting the question right, obviously. But that’s the easiest step: getting the question right. Then it’s getting the question right in 90 seconds or less, because the time constraint is one of the more challenging parts of this test. If you can do it in three minutes, you kind of can do it. So that’s step two. And step three is getting the question right in 90 seconds or less, 100 times in a row. And that’s a huge step. That’s a bigger step between two and three than one and two. To be able to get every single step of every single question right 100 times in a row for four and a half straight hours is extremely difficult. It requires an almost robotic consistency with respect to your own fail-safes to reduce carelessness. It requires a presence of mind that is very difficult to sustain for most people for four and a half hours. And what I’m talking about with respect to that is sustained mindfulness.

A big part of this test is being able to kind of have temporal blinders, like those horses in Central Park that have the blinders. You don’t want to think about the past or the previous question. You want to think about the future, where the next question you want your entire universe to be the question that’s directly in front of you, and ideally, the smallest step of the question that’s directly in front of you. And to sort of walk the razor’s edge of the present moment in that way for four straight hours. Because as soon as you start to mentally time travel, and you think about what you did on the previous quant section, or how you have a third verbal section to look forward to, you take yourself out of the present moment, which means you’re increasingly disengaged from the actual sensory information that you need to solve that problem, which is just inviting carelessness, just inviting error and variance into your performance.

And so the difference between somebody who’s scoring at 162, and a person who’s scoring at 168, isn’t knowledge at that point; those two students probably know exactly the same amount of content, they might even have the same sexy test prep strategies. The difference between those two students is the 168 student is better able to mitigate his or her carelessness over the long run versus the 162 student. And the ability to do that depends instrumentally on sustained mindfulness, being nonjudgmentally aware of the present moment, moment to moment, for four and a half straight hours.

Davis: So, okay, the mindfulness you’re talking about is that ability to stay non-judgmentally present, focused on that razor’s edge of not considering the past or the future, but just on what it is I need to do now, what I’m doing right now.

Orion: That is one working definition of mindfulness. I know that there are many in psychology; the one that gets thrown around the most is: mindfulness is the non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. And I think that’s a good enough definition for what I’m talking about here.

Davis: Gotcha. And so, what are these strategies? Because a lot of times, people talk about mindfulness strategies. Like, what do you do? What tools do you have to actually allow yourself to stay focused?

Orion: I think a lot of it depends on practice. I mean, we don’t even have four-hour-long movies anymore. We used to be able to sit down for “Gone With the Wind”; there was a little intermission, but now, our entertainment has changed. We can’t even sit through four hours of entertainment these days. “Lord of the Rings,” maybe, but they had a theatrical release, which was 25% shorter than the director’s cut. You know, three hours is pushing it for the vast majority of people. So, my point is, when’s the last time most people have sat down and focused on one thing for four hours?

Davis: It’s probably been years, if ever.

Orion: So, this is something you can’t expect to just waltz into the test and be able to effortlessly manifest, and it’s really important. Let me demonstrate some evidence for how important it is. There’s a really cool study that was done at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), several years ago, that inspired my own doctoral dissertation, which I’ll talk about a little bit later. But what these researchers did is they randomized two groups of undergrad students into two two-week classes.

One of them was a mindfulness class where the students learned how to meditate, mindfully meditate, and the other one was like a nutrition or a healthy living class; it had nothing to do with mindfulness. But neither class had anything to do with test prep. I mean, it’s mindfulness versus nutrition. And the variable of interest was student performance on the verbal section of the GRE. And the researchers gave the students in both groups the verbal sections both before and after the two-week intervention. Neither student learned vocabulary, nor did they learn GRE standardized test skills or strategies; they just focused on mindfulness and nutrition, respectively. And at the end of those two weeks, the researchers discovered that with no other additional information or test prep skills, the students in the mindfulness condition scored 19 percentile points higher than those in the nutritional condition. Nineteen percentile points is enormous. That’s like a fifth of the entire variance of the test. And so, this is just one performance factor. There’s also test anxiety. And it’s difficult to overstate the importance of these performance factors on top percentile performance on the GRE.

Davis: Okay. So, that study actually inspired me in my own doctoral research. I took that and ran with it, saying, “Okay, that’s a very powerful finding.” But it also takes two weeks’ worth of work, which, in the scheme of things, isn’t all that much, right?

Orion: If you’re preparing for the GRE and spend two or three months doing it, you could simultaneously cultivate a mindfulness practice during that time as well. There are tons of no- to low-cost apps that do that.

Davis: Was there any follow-up study that showed the effects of two weeks versus two months of mindfulness training, to see if you still get increased benefits? Or is it pretty much just a minimum threshold where if you have this mindfulness practice established, even over a short period like two weeks, you just get this boost?

Orion: I haven’t seen that study with respect to the GRE, but there’s tons of evidence suggesting that experienced meditators have all kinds of important differences from naive meditators or non-meditators in a host of performance factors, and even neurophysiological factors, like experienced meditators. One finding is that they consistently have a thicker left frontal lobe, and the density of the left frontal lobe is correlated with impulse control and distress management.

So, these practiced mindfulness meditators, the idea is that they’ve been able to create some space between, let’s say, their Observer Self and their thinking self, which might complain, which might prompt them to act in a certain way uncritically around thinking. And that exercising of space is what’s contributed to the thickening of that part of the brain, which is associated with that type of behavior. That’s right in line with some other research I’ve become aware of out of UC Berkeley, which talks about how experienced meditators have reduced activity sustained throughout their normal waking life in the default mode network, which is that temporal network.

Davis: That’s fascinating. I’m considering the past and the future. If you can get out of that space and stay in the present moment.

Orion: Well, the default network, I’ll take a short detour because it’s fascinating. I did my dissertation on mind wandering, the phenomenon and the cognitive phenomenon of mind wandering, and how to reduce it through mindfulness techniques. And my variable of interest was also a reading comprehension passage, like on the GRE. The default network is a host of different neurological centers in the brain that seem to be more active when we’re not doing anything in particular. That’s why researchers call it the default; it just is like our default state. And that is highly correlated with mind wandering.

And so there’s this idea that focus and concentration are not the default state for anybody, for whatever reason the human organism might have been created to, if we’re not, we have to make an effort to be focused and concentrated. And but that activity of a default network, as you just revealed with a study, can be influenced over time through sustained practice of meditation, correct?

Davis: Yeah. I think that’s wonderful. And it squares with what I understand.

Orion: So, I took this UCSB study and ran with it, because I was like, “Okay, two weeks is good. But what if there’s something that you can do in, like, seven minutes instead, something that’s just right before an activity or an event where you really do need focus and concentration? Maybe it’s not going to have as robust an effect as two weeks or two years or 20 years of meditation, but like, is there something that students can do to focus in, you know, very quickly in the moment and improve their mindfulness in their reading comprehension?”

And it turns out that there was. So, I used a certain technique with permission from a researcher in the UK, whose name escapes me right now. But it was called the Attention Training Technique. It’s basically an attention-switching task, where I asked students to intentionally switch their focus to different sounds. I would play different sounds in the room, like a metronome or the humming of the computer, or they had to focus on sounds from outside the space, or the sound of their own heartbeat. They had to switch on command between all these different audible cues.

There was also a practice of simultaneous listening, which was how many different sounds can I count in the present moment as an observer of sound. And these exercises took about five to seven minutes to complete.

Then, I gave the students a reading comprehension test and very covertly measured the number of mind-wandering episodes that they experienced while reading the passage, which was done in a kind of clever, indirect way, with respect to reaction times to advance the text they were reading. Basically, if their reaction time was very long relative to certain characteristics of the text that they were reading, we could surmise that they were not really paying attention because they should be in the flow of reading. And so that was an indirect measure of mind wandering.

Basically, the students who went through the Attention Training Technique versus a control exercise experienced significantly fewer mind-wandering episodes while reading this boring text that you will have to read on the GRE as well.

So, I think there’s robust evidence for the power of mindfulness in increasing performance on standardized tests, like the GRE. And there’s at least some evidence that students can increase their mindfulness very, very quickly. They don’t have to move to a monastery and shave their heads and devote their life to this. They can work it into a daily practice during their test prep using an app like Headspace or something like that. It’s basically great. Or they can even find techniques to focus their attention within minutes before they actually sit down and take the test. And all of those things should help to increase their sustained mindfulness, which is associated with almost a 20% variance in score.

Davis: So, this is extremely important. It’s something that everyone can do, and they can do it for free. It costs nothing except the time and energy that goes into designing skillful, science-backed, simple, practical tools that can give you this 22nd percentile.

Orion: That’s what I’m all about, man. I’m all about empirical evidence. I’ve run the numbers on my own students, and I know that the Stellar approach is empirically valid. I think it’s the only empirically validated GRE test prep program in the world. I know the size of that improvement. I mean, I’m all about the data.

Davis: That’s great. That’s great. This is incredibly useful. And people can find out more about these mindfulness techniques by visiting stellargre.com. And for also anything else GRE prep or grad school consulting.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at stellargre@gmail.com. And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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