Own Your IRs, Own the SAT

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By Jim Treadway

Students empower and disempower themselves at every turn in test prep, and the degree to which they do so determines their score in the end.

Yet until they work with us, they don’t know they’re doing this.

This article lays out how our brains create reality (thanks to the teachings of Steve Linder at Strategic Brain!).

It will change how you see your life, and when we use it in test prep, it alters how our students see taking risks during the test, facing challenging questions, and responding to setbacks like frustrating scores.

Becoming a new person when facing challenges, taking risks, and responding to setbacks – who wouldn’t want some of that?

It also raises test scores. That my students learn it each week in our interactions is one reason why my 31 ACT test-takers over the past five years have raised their scores an average of 7.1 points.

Test prep is hard, and to work as hard as you need to, and to stay as persistent as you need to in order to score at the top of your potential, you need REAL positivity, resilience, and confidence.

Let’s begin.

Scientists find that every second, our brains take in 2-4 million bits of information from our surroundings.

Yet we can only concentrate on about 134 bits of information per second. Where does the rest of the information go? It gets deleted, distorted, and generalized by our brains.

“Deleted, distorted, and generalized” – key phrase. What is it that actually DOES the deleting, distorting, and generalizing?

Filters in our brain.

We all have unique filters – our childhoods, the culture we grew up in, our personality type, or certain experiences – all of which shape the meaning we put on life around us. An introvert and an extrovert may experience the same conversation very differently, for example, because of how their personality types distort and delete different aspects of the interaction.

The introvert reflects on something the extrovert said and finds it, and the conversation, to have been fascinating. The extrovert noticed the introvert go quiet and feels uncomfortable with the silence, deciding the conversation was awkward and uncomfortable.

A student with a history of test anxiety and frustrating scores will see his next test much differently than an excellent student who filters that test in terms of all of her past successes – just another opportunity to be successful, she thinks. 

After deleting, distorting, and generalizing the information flooding into our brains, our mind creates an “Internal Representation” (or “IR”) of reality.

THIS IR – the story we tell ourselves about the event – is what our brain remembers going forward.

We don’t ever experience reality, in fact – we experience our IRs.

Knowing how we create IRs is huge, because we start to see how fungible they really are. Our first, scary, stressful thought about a test is no longer a death sentence of how it will go. That IR can genuinely be changed and upgraded – and then can our testtaking.

Our third ACT sore is still stuck at a 33 when we know we can score 35 or 36? One student reacts to that situation by deciding “I’m done with the ACT – this will never work out.”

Another creates an IR of “Wow – I wonder what I’m still missing such that I’m continuing to underperform on test day. I’m going to figure this out.”

With IRs, the game is to notice if the one you’re experiencing is empowering or disempowering. You’ll know your IR is disempowering when you’re flooded with stress.

Key fact: anytime we focus on a disempowering IR, our brain is simultaneously deleting the empowering IR that is just as true.

Another key fact: we can’t control our first thought (or IR). We can only control our second thought. 

So don’t worry if your first IR – say, “I hate writing college essays” – is disempowering.  Your job isn’t to have perfect IRs.  It’s to switch the disempowering ones into empowering ones:  “these essays are challenging, but they’re what will pave the way to me getting into my dream school.”

That will do!

It’s similar to meditation where our job isn’t to have perfect focus, it’s to notice when our focus has wandered and then bring it back to our desired focal point (like a mantra or our breath). 

“I suck at Math,” a student might say, or when I question the stories they might have been telling themselves during a recent test anxiety meltdown, they’ll say how afraid they were of doing terribly, ruining their future, or embarrassing themselves in front of their parents or friends.

Not exactly empowering IRs.

So we consciously flip them.  “You don’t suck at Math,” I might tell a student. “That’s a generalization! Ok, you suck at Unit Circle trigonometry questions – and that’s just because you haven’t done our packet on them yet – so you only suck at them so far!”

I may keep the new IR a bit negative-sounding just to maintain rapport with my student. Still – it’s a very different IR than the one she started with:  from “I suck at Math” to “I just have some more work to do and then I’ll get it.”

In every tutor-student interaction, once a student understands IRs and how their brains create meaning through deletion, distortion, and generalization, tutors can call the students out for their unhelpful IRs. 

And often, the students revel in calling the tutors out on having uttered unhelpful IRs! 

Students learn to catch the disempowering meanings they’ve created, then flip to more empowering ones instead.

In each of these moments, It’s a 2-degree shift in outlook, but those 2-degree shifts compound over time, putting students on a completely different trajectory than where they  were headed had they simply gone through life accepting their first IRs.

Learning to catch and flip their IRs doesn’t just enable students to show up confidently, resiliently, and with positivity to their homework and SAT/ACT exams – giving them the willingness to do all the work required and to be persistent over many months in order to get the score they’re capable of – it empowers them show up that way in the rest of their lives, too.

Students’ Top Five Disempowering –> Empowering IRs:

1) “I suck at testtaking.”  –>  “I’m going to get better at testtaking.”

2) “Standardized tests are stupid.”  –>  “True, but until I’m in charge of national testtaking policy, I’m using this to get better academically and to pave the way to my dream school.”

3) “My friends are going to do so much better than me.”  –>  “Comparing myself to others helps nobody; the game is to get better than who I was yesterday.”

4) “I hate ACT homework.”  –>  “It’s not fun, but I always feel good from getting it done.  I’ll do a little and then I can take a break.”

5) “I’m gonna do so badly.”  –>  “I’m going to SURPRISE myself by how well I do in the end.”

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