How to train your brain!

Annabel Healer

October 30, 2015

After graduating from University I trained as a Maths teacher at a secondary school in Middlesbrough.  I was constantly plagued by students who felt that they could do the questions in a classroom environment or even independently for homework, but when it came to the exam their “mind went blank” and they would be unable to answer the questions they’d done so well in class.

Having worked hard at school and often enjoyed taking exams I couldn’t wrap my head around this.  Surely the students weren’t revising hard enough or they didn’t truly understand the topic? There’s no way that simply going into an exam hall could have this much of an effect on a person!

I’ve since left the classroom but over the past year have been tutoring a student aged 14 who attends a top state school.  She sees herself as low ability because she Is not in top set - although she is well above the national average.  Unfortunately, her lack of confidence leads her to say similar things to the students I used to teach: “I can’t do it in the exam” “My mind just goes blank” “I start to panic when I don’t understand the question”.

Tutoring a student is a lot different to teaching a full class.  I work with her once a week for at least an hour and I see the hard work she is putting into her homework and revision when there is a test coming up.  It is not that she isn’t revising hard enough or that she doesn’t understand – something really does happen when she goes into the exam room and it’s the complete opposite to what used to happen to me.

Recently we invited the behavioural tutor Gary Leboff to speak to some of our tutors and staff.  Gary is a confidence coach who after a very successful career working with premiership footballers and golfers has began working with children and teenagers. One of our top tutors asked what happens when this issue was posed to him, what does he say to his students when they have this problem?  His answer seemed simple and so obvious that I decided to try it on my student in our next lesson.

 “Annabel, I can’t do this question; I don’t understand what It means” “Ok – the thought you just had there, was it a positive thought or a negative thought?”

“Negative thought”

“Yes! Imagine you could choose a different thought – name 5 different thoughts that would be more positive in this situation”

“Ok…I’ve got a calculator, I’ve got you and you can help me, I’ve got a pen and paper to work it out, I know how to do it because I did it in class and…I’m a girl and girls are awesome!”

“Yes!  Ok so now we have a menu of different thoughts to choose from.  What is your favourite restaurant?”

“Nandos!”

“Perfect and what’s your favourite thing to order from Nandos?”

“Chicken and chips and halloumi!”

“Great!  So if you went to Nandos would you order something that you didn’t like?”

“No…well I might be accident”

“Ok so would you go back the next day and the next day and the next day and order the thing that you didn’t like?”

“No of course not!”

“Well when you go to into an exam or to tackle a question, why are you choosing a negative thought?  You have the power to choose the way in which your brain thinks and you can either choose a negative thought or a positive thought.  So let’s try this question again and let’s just a different thought from your menu”

Funnily enough it worked and my student answered the question with ease – often enjoying the challenge.  We laughed as we tried to keep positive throughout the question, even when it got really tough “Oh yay this question is so hard, that means I get to use my brain more!”

The next week she had a Maths test at school and in our session the night before she told me how nervous she was.  I reminded her of this menu trick and said there was no need to worry.  I left the lesson knowing that there was no magic fix and hoped that the work we had done together would be enough.

The following day I was sat at my desk in the Tutorfair office.  I opened my emails and low and behold I had an email from my student – I couldn’t stop smiling.

“Hi Annabel, Thanks very much for sending the work over, I tried the menu thing in the Maths test and it really help me, thanks so much for the new technique! Hope you have a nice weekend Purnima”

This is the first time in the 6 months we’ve been having lessons that she has been positive after an exam. I have since taken on this technique in my daily life, constantly trying to change the way I think about different situations.  It seems that we can train our brains and it’s important that the young people we work with know this too!