Why do students blank out in tests and exams?


The simple answer to the question posed in the heading to this article is that we blank out when we go into stress mode. Understanding the mechanism responsible for this is important if we want to be able to help a child who experiences this.

It started with the theory of a triune brain, described by John MacLean. This theory may be seen as outdated these days but it has important implications for brain development and patterns of neural firing.

Basically, his theory concerns the development of the brain from bottom up.  The first brain areas (or systems) to develop are the primitive, lower level areas that need to function to ensure our survival.  Their functioning includes regulation of heartbeat, breathing and other vital automatic functions.  Following these very primitive areas are those that regulate our emotions, around the midbrain area. Finally, the more advanced areas, responsible for our higher human functions like attending, decision making, problem-solving and so on, are fully developed at around the age of 25 years.

Because our survival depends on it, the primitive systems in the brain tend to override more advanced (cognitive) functions when needed.  Studies into the effects of distress show that the brain down-regulates the cognitive areas in favour of lower systems, such as brainstem, medulla and other stress-response systems.   To explain this in simpler terms, when we are faced with a threat or danger, we go into stress mode. This activates the sympathetic nervous system that releases stress hormones (cortisol and adrenalin) and effects other physiological changes.  These include the limiting of oxygen sent to higher brain areas and diverting it to the muscles so that we can better fight or flee the danger.  We don’t have to begin problem-solving when faced by an attacking dog; we have to use our muscles to either defend ourselves physically or run away as fast as we can.

And this is what happens in a stressful test or exam situation. The child has learned the work but due to fear of failure or poor performance, goes into stress mode.  Oxygen is shunted away from those higher brain systems holding all the necessary knowledge, stress hormones are released into the body and the child cannot remember anything.  Once the threat of danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system once again overrides the sympathetic and once equilibrium has been achieved, it is common that knowledge seems to flood back. The learner realises that he actually does remember what was required.

How can you help?  Firstly, don’t try to talk the learner out of the situation.  Remember that he is experiencing stress, and can’t access the rational, intellectual areas of his brain.  Instead, helping such learners requires time. They need to learn how to de-stress the brain and reverse the physiological reaction to stress. 

This can be effected through deep, even breathing and progressive relaxation of the muscles of the body.   Shallow, rapid breathing is a symptom of stress, so consciously altering the breathing pattern helps the brain to understand that the danger has passed.  Tension in muscles is another reaction to stress, so being able to quickly relax muscles is another signal to the brain to switch off the sympathetic nervous system response and reduce the effects of stress.

Having the opportunity to practice these techniques at home and at school can better prepare learners for not only the stressful times of testing but also for coping with the stressors that they face in life.  If you feel uncertain about how to go about this, perhaps engaging the help of a professional may be the way to go.  Yoga is an approach that teaches deep breathing and relaxation, so encouraging this discipline may also be helpful.




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