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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 3; September 04

Major Article

Exam Success: EQ or IQ?

adult and secondary

Judy Churchill


How can we as trainers use Emotional Intelligence (EQ) to help our students become better achievers?
What do we understand by EQ?
What is its role in the testing arena and why is it important for us as trainers that we become familiar with its application and impact on our students' performance?

These and others are questions that I aim to answer during the course of this article, which is based on a presentation at the Liverpool IATEFL conference in April 2004.

The aim of my talk and also of this article is to report on my latest research into the field of Emotional Intelligence in the context of testing, and on what I consider to be ground breaking territory in helping our students excel in areas in which they systematically under-perform.

I would like to show how a better understanding of the role EQ plays in the way the individual perceives his/her own ability to achieve good scores/test results can result in rapid payoff effects. I shall offer some examples to show why I believe that the emotional attitude with which a student approaches a test can count as much as the knowledge base he possesses and why therefore, to be effective, learning must be affective. Using cases from my own teaching situations I shall look at a fast-track method to show how a perennial underachiever can be emotionally reprogrammed to becoming an achiever by gaining a greater self-awareness of the negative mechanisms in the brain circuitry triggered in certain key situations.

I have included some practical examples of how we can help our students overcome their own emotional handicaps by offering techniques that I have successfully used with my own trainees. I shall continue by reporting on research that has produced some surprising results in the area of banishing toxic emotions that can hamper our "flow" and consequently linguistic performance. I shall end by inviting trainers to rethink the traditional doctrine of "relearning the lesson" in favour of emotional relearning.

Origins of the "emotional" brain

To better understand how emotions affect our performance when we are being tested, let us look at the brain process involved.

The brain stem surrounding the top of the spinal cord contains pre-programmed regulators. These in turn affect our emotional centres which in turn affects the neo-cortex which is our "thinking brain". The order of events is crucial to an understanding of the way students will be affected when under pressure. In terms of evolution the emotional brain came first and then the thinking brain. In fact the most ancient root of emotional life is the olfactory lobe or our sense of smell (i.e. if the test doesn't smell right - the brain won't like it). According to my cousin Dr. Anne Richardson, Research Manager in sensory sciences at perfume experts Quest International, "It all comes down to physiology. Our sense of smell is very primitive; in a way it's our brain's only contact with the outside world. No other sense hits the brain so directly and so fast -no time for thought or editing. Smell is the shortest contact between the sense and the brain." she explains. "When we smell a rose, the odour molecules travel to the cavity at the back of the nose where they come in contact with a mucous membrane chock-full of receptor cells called cilia. These stimulate the olfactory bulb which sends signals along the olfactory nerve straight into the limbic system. Originally called the 'smell brain', this mysterious area is now thought to be the seat of emotion, mood, and memory".

(I contend that these revelations warrant an article devoted to the implications of smell alone, an area I fully intend to research in the future.)

We can nevertheless already see that the very fact that the thinking brain grew from the emotional reveals much about the relationship of thought to feeling in an exam context. There was an emotional brain long before there was a rational one. We must therefore acknowledge that there is likely to be an emotional student before a rational one.

To explain how we arrived at this point we need to understand that with the arrival of the first mammals came new, key, layers of the emotional brain. Here we are concerned with the limbic system, the key layers of the emotional brain (surrounding the brain stem). When our students recoil in dread, panicking in an exam, it is the limbic system that has them in its grip.
As it evolved, the limbic system refined two powerful tools; learning and memory. These two tools which are unarguably essential in our profession, are therefore inseparably linked to our EQ.
The neocortex that humans possess today can be seen as the "clearing house" of thought : it contains the centres that put together and comprehend what our students perceive and it adds feeling to what they think about it. It allows them to have feeling about what we are teaching them, what they are supposedly learning and crucially what they are being tested on. The emotional brain therefore plays an essential role in neural architecture and test results.

Humans possess, above any other species, an immense range of possible emotional responses to any one situation. This can be to their advantage or detriment depending on the emotion. Humans display a far greater range of reactions to their emotions and more nuance allowing them greater flexibility in the reprogramming of negative emotions which as trainers or testers is what we are striving to achieve. The emotional areas of the brain today are intertwined via a myriad connecting circuits to all parts of the neocortex. This gives the emotional centres immense power to influence the functioning of the rest of the brain - including its centres for thought.

Role of the amygdala

The researcher Joseph Ledoux has revealed some mind-blowing discoveries which centre on the role of the amygdala. The amygdala (Greek for almond) is a cluster of interconnected structures perched above the brain stem and is the specialist for emotional matters. Ledoux's research shows that the amygdala begins to respond before the neocortex - the thinking brain. This "bypass" circuit does much to explain the power of the emotional to overwhelm rationality and goes a long way towards explaining why a student when searching for the answer to an apparently simple question, will go into "freak out" mode in a test room context while remaining perfectly under control in or out of the classroom. The amygdala can have us spring into action while the slightly slower - but more informed- neo-cortex develops its more refined plan of action. This happens in microseconds but is enough to hijack the brain during a test. Here we are dealing with the "fight or flight response" which I examine in more detail in my article "Coping with exam stress" (IATEFL TEA SIG Newsletter June 2003).

Rudimentary emotional mistakes such as "fight or flight" are based on feeling occurring prior to thought. Ledoux calls it "precognitive emotion". The amygdala can react if triggered in a delirium of rage or fear before the cortex knows what is going on because such raw emotion is initiated independent of and prior to thought.

Why is the harmonizing of emotion and thought so important in the testing arena?

Emotion is therefore crucial to thought both in choosing the correct answer during a test and simply allowing us to think clearly throughout that test.
Emotions can disrupt thinking. Neuroscientists use the term "working memory" for the capacity of attention that holds in the mind the facts essential for completing a given task or problem (or the elements of a reasoning problem in a test, for example part 2 of TOEIC test or part 1 of the TFI)
The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for working memory. But circuits from the limbic brain to the prefrontal lobes mean that the signals of strong emotion - anxiety, anger and the like, can create neural static, sabotaging the ability of the prefrontal lobe to maintain working memory. This is witnessed in the standard "freeze" mode that students go into when, still at an initial or low level of language competence, they go "blank" when first faced with a real life situation in the language they are attempting to practise.

The emotional brain, quite separate from those cortical areas activated by IQ tests, controls rage and compassion alike. These emotional circuits are moulded by experience throughout childhood and we leave those experiences utterly to chance at our peril. Your students will bring with them a certain amount of "emotional test baggage". You, as trainers, will often need help the student empty that emotional backpack and repack it.
In a sense we have two brains, two minds, and two different kinds of intelligence: rational and emotional. How we do in a test is determined by both. It is not just IQ but EQ that matters. Language cannot work at its best without EQ. The complementarity of the limbic system, the neocortex , the amygdala ,the prefrontal lobes means that each can be deemed a full partner in mental life. When they interact well, EQ rises as does intellectual ability.

Erasmus wanted to do away with emotions and put reason in its place. I suggest that in assessment situations we need an intelligent balance of the two, we need to harmonise head and heart. For a fast track method to doing well in a test, we must learn to use emotions intelligently.

The emotional attitude with which a student approaches a test counts as much as the knowledge base he possesses

Research has shown that good moods, while they last, enhance the ability to think flexibly and with more complexity, thus making it easier to find solutions to problems. Certain institutions, such as Pilgrims, have long understood the importance of mood enhancing learning circumstances and do much to help trainers understand this issue through their courses such as "Laughter in the classroom". In a testing context this can mean getting your students to work through the following three point plan: before the test do a pleasurable activity - pre-program the brain - get the endorphins going.
This would suggest that one way to help someone think through a problem is to tell them a joke. According to Daniel Goleman : "Laughing, like elation, seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely, noticing relationships that might have eluded them otherwise." (this proves very useful in parts 5 and 6 of the TOEIC).

It has been shown that even mild mood changes (enhanced by an empathetic pre-test environment) can sway our students' thinking. In making decisions about answers to test questions, test takers in good moods have a perceptual bias that leads them to be more expansive and positive in their thinking. This is partly because memory is state-specific, so that while in a good mood they remember more. By the same token if our students are in a foul mood, this will bias their memory in a negative direction.
We can therefore conclude that emotions which are out of control impede the intellect. But we can bring our students' out of control emotions back into line. This emotional competence should be seen as a major skill to be mastered that will in turn facilitate all kinds of linguistic competence and hopefully translate into an aptitude that will be useful to our students throughout their professional lives when faced with any stressful situation.

Fast track method to emotionally reprogramming perennial underachievers

I would like to share some of the remedial measures that I have tried and tested with my own students to help facilitate a speedy change of attitude prior to a test. Below is a step by step guide that I have adapted after watching a TV documentary on the work of Alistair Horscroft as he reprogrammed a Australian reporter/journalist (unable to secure a job in the UK due to her interview nerves) to improve her self confidence in one-on-one interview situations and successfully secure a job.

First the trainee needs to gain greater self-awareness of negative mechanisms in the brain circuitry (toxic emotions) triggered in key situations:

    Students write down all the negative emotions with which they are afflicted (one per sheet of paper) during a test or exam

  • Re-imprinting - students exorcise the negative experience, i.e. what will you say to yourself in the test room to comfort your negative self (positive inner dialogue)

  • Students put sheets of paper on the floor and stand on each one in turn imagining the emotion and imprinting a comforting dialogue about it. For this they can elicit the help of the trainer or other students

Taking negative attitude to ENGISH out of the TEST so that the test becomes purely a means to an end and not an end in itself
  • Student writes down on A4 sheets the importance of English to them (one idea per sheet)

  • Student stands on each A4 and visualises themselves in that situation using English

  • To set positive experience in English, first you feel on the inside, second this manifests itself on the outside, i.e. test

  • Role reversal challenge. Student takes the role of the tester, writes tests for other students. This is not only a useful and fun linguistic exercise but it also demystifies the test, wakes students up to a whole host of possibilities where unexpected answers are concerned (parts 2 of TOEIC)- changes balance of power - empowers.

  • The message here is that students regain control over their emotions and no longer unwittingly surrender to outside influences. Nothing should be beyond their control. Once they see this, a whole new lease of enthusiasm will enter their systems and they will push the "I'm in control" button when they enter the test room.

If all of this fails there is a final technique that can be used which centres on breathing exercises . I call it Slaying the Emotional Dragon:

  • Physical exercise

  • Situate student in pre-test nervous disposition

  • Get student to feel the pre-test rising belly tension (often referred to as butterflies)

  • Let it rise and go back (x2) - akin to practising dealing with contractions in antenatal classes

  • See the feeling outside your body

  • Disassociate it from yourself, slay it, return to yourself.

  • Deep relaxation and breathing from the diaphragm as in yoga classes

  • Look inside yourself and replace negative emotions with positive (this is something I explored briefly in my article Ballet shoes and slippers

The role of anxiety in the testing arena: a personal experience

Test anxiety was first studied scientifically in the 1960s by Richard Alpert. My own interest is more personal as I explained in my article (Ballet shoes and slippers) and was aroused by the realisation that although I had what I considered to be an adequate knowledge base, nerves often made me do poorly in my exams, whilst my younger sister found that the pressure before an exam actually helped her do better.

Alpert's research, among other studies, showed that there are two kinds of anxious students: those whose anxiety wrecks their test performance and those whose anxiety enhances it. The irony of test anxiety is that the very apprehension about doing well in the test could motivate students like my sister to study hard in preparation and so do well, and yet could sabotage success in my own case. For our own students who are too anxious, pre-test apprehension will interfere with the clarity of their thinking and the memory work necessary to study effectively, while during the test it will disrupt the mental sharpness essential for doing well. John Hunsley has carried out research into the area of negative thought and test scores and he reports that the number of worries that people report while taking a test directly predicts how poorly they will do in it. The process is that the mental resources expended on one cognitive task-the worrying- simply detract from the resources available for processing other information. This has huge implications for our students and if they are to be made aware of only one fact it should be this. If they are preoccupied by worries that they are going to fail the test they are taking, they have that much less attention to expend on figuring out the answers.

We all know that in many areas of life, if we allow them to, worries will become self-fulfilling prophecies, propelling us towards the very disaster they predict.
If we can teach our students to harness their emotions as my sister did (she is today a very successful consultant eye surgeon), then they will be able to use their "anticipatory anxiety" to motivate themselves to prepare well for the test, thereby achieving the desired score or result. Traditionally, psychology has documented the relationship between anxiety and mental performance in terms of an upside-down U. At the peak of this inverted U would be the ideal relationship between anxiety and performance, resulting in outstanding results. Too little anxiety, on the other hand-the first side of the U, results in apathy or lack of motivation to try hard enough to do well. Too much anxiety, the other side of the U, sabotages any attempt to do well.


A mildly elated state would seem to be ideal, somewhere towards the peak of the inverted U. This should produce optimum performance.

Recent research - banishing toxic emotions - hampering our "flow"

Toxic emotions are those emotions that cause us to enter the negative spiral of "can't do it, won't do it, will fail" attitude prior to a test. We can also become prey to these emotions during a test because we happen upon one or a series of difficult questions that send us spiralling down the helter-skelter of negativity to land with an emotional thump at the bottom never to recover.
This could happen for example during the listening comprehension of the TOEIC, the oral section of a BULATS or interview section of IELTS or TOEFL speaking test.
The result is the same: once distressing thoughts become dominant, they become automatic and are self-confirming, preventing the positive anxious energy flow so beneficial to stimulating our senses.
These thoughts are powerfully toxic, as Daniel Goleman explains, they trigger the neural alarm system.
This triggers emotional hijacking in the student's brain. In these moments of panic, Goleman tells us evidence suggests, a centre in the limbic brain proclaims an emergency, recruiting the rest of the brain to its urgent agenda. The hijacking occurs in an instant, triggering this reaction crucial moments before the neocortex, the thinking brain, has had the chance to glimpse fully what is happening.
The usual procedure following such a hijack, is that once the moment passes (in our case, the question or the whole test) those possessed have the sense of not knowing what came over them.
This puts the student in a no-win situation. Students who are free of such distress-triggering emotions can entertain a more rational interpretation of test difficulties and so are less likely to have such a hijacking, or if they do, tend to recover from it more readily.
This pleads the case for some in situ stress busting practice (see my article Coping with Exam Stress for a host of practical ideas in this area).


The net effect of these distressing attitudes is to create incessant test crisis. Gottman uses the highly appropriate term "flooding" for this susceptibility to frequent emotional stress.
People who are flooded with what I call 'acute emotional pollution' are unable to hear without distortion or respond with clear headedness. They find it practically impossible to organise their thinking and they resort to primitive reactions. As Goleman puts it, flooding is a self perpetuating emotional hijacking

The physiological manifestation of flooding can be observed in terms of heart rate rise from calm levels. At rest, women's heart rates are about 82 beats per minute, men's about 72. Flooding begins at about 10 beats per minute above a person's resting rate; if the heart rate reaches 100 beats per minute then the body is pumping adrenaline (fight or flight response kicks in) and other hormones that keep the distress high for some time. This is why physical exercise prior to a test is highly recommended for nervous candidates, as it will subsequently cause the heart rate to drop, producing a mild sedative effect on the brain

How we can help our underachievers gain more satisfying results?

We can help our students understand what Aristotle observed: appropriate emotion. The goal should be balanced emotions, not emotional suppression. Every feeling has its value and significance.
We can help our students learn from others' experience, Daniel Goleman tells the story of his own exam ordeal from which we can all gain valuable insight: "Just once in my life have I been paralyzed by fear. The occasion was a calculus exam…………………As I opened the blue cover of my exam book, there was the thump in my ears of heartbeat, there was the taste of anxiety in the pit of my stomach……..For an hour I stared at that page, my mind racing over the consequences I would suffer…………..I simply sat fixated on my terror, waiting for the ordeal to finish."

This example is no news to teachers. Students who are anxious, angry or depressed do not do well in tests. When emotions overwhelm concentration what is being swamped is the mental capacity cognitive scientists call working memory, which as I previously mentioned is essential to all of us when dealing with an immediate task at hand.
On the other hand, consider the role of positive motivation .What could be the effect of marshalling such feelings as enthusiasm, zeal, and confidence on achievement? Despair can be transformed into empowerment. Studies of Olympic athletes, world class musicians and chess grand masters have shown that their unifying trait is the ability to motivate themselves to pursue relentless training routines. Likewise, starting earlier or younger to learn a language or train in a particular area of it offers a linguistic edge.

For our students this can translate into regular practice of the task at hand (a trainer at the IUP in Sophia Antipolis, France told me that the simple introduction of ten minutes of listening comprehension at the start of her classes upped her students' scores on the listening comprehension section of the TOEIC very significantly to the point where previously "frozen" students with an "I can't understand a word attitude" started to take in it all in their stride. Likewise I keep my Italian activated and on amber alert by keeping my car radio permanently on an Italian station. I have proved the theory to myself as I have realised how relaxed I am today spending an evening amongst Italian speakers compared to previously, when I offered my brain only sporadic reminders of the language. I would at that time be exhausted by the end of a dinner conversation.

Asians believe that anyone can do well in a test with the right effort and that it very often is just a question of effort or familiarity as opposed to talent. Persistence gives an emotional edge.
In my own classroom this has meant getting French students to accept responsibility for their own "out of class" learning and maintaining their level. In the case of tests it has meant not seeing the TOEIC as a cultural threat but as a means to an end. This means an emotional preparatory phase for which they can programme themselves. It is in this context that EQ can be seen as Goleman's 'master aptitude', the major player that should precede all others, a capacity that profoundly and inevitably affects all other abilities, either facilitating or interfering with them.

As one management consultant so rightfully put it : "Stress makes people stupid" . As good a reason as any for banishing it from your test room.

Do we need to "recycle" the lesson or recycle/reprogramme the emotions within that lesson?

Traditionally trainers are familiar with the concept that for a student to actually "learn" they need to have the same lesson recycled a number of times. Revision takes up a certain amount of pre-test preparation. However my theory is that we should spend equal if not more time on reprogramming the emotions within that lesson. We should bear in mind the following:

  • The emotional mind is far quicker to react than the rational mind, springing into action without pausing even a moment to consider what it is doing.

  • When the dust settles or even in mid-response, we find ourselves thinking "what did I do that for?" A sign that the rational mind is awakening to the moment, but not with the rapidity of the emotional mind.

  • There is also a second kind of emotional reaction, slower than the quick response, which simmers and builds up in the depths of our thoughts before it leads to feelings. Apprehension over an upcoming exam follows this slower route, taking seconds or minutes to unfold. It can be nonetheless highly destructive.

  • The rational mind usually does not decide what emotions we "should" have. What the rational can ordinarily or be educated to control is the "course" of those reactions.

  • The logic of the emotional mind is associative. It takes elements that symbolise a reality or trigger a memory of it, to be the same as that reality. That is why similes, metaphors, images and smells speak directly to the EQ. ( see Ballet Shoes and Slippers)

  • If the emotional mind obeys these laws in the testing arena with one element standing for an other, what matters for underachievers in the test room is how things are perceived, things are as they seem.

  • What something reminds us of can be far more important that what it is.

  • Create a positive impression on the mind prior to the test and there is a fair chance that that impression will be reproduced on the day of the test.

  • The beliefs of the rational mind are tentative: new evidence can disconfirm one belief and replace it with a new one - it reasons by objective evidence. This is excellent news for trainers as they can reprint positive images on a student's negative test baggage.

  • According to Daniel Goleman, when some feature of an event seems similar to an emotionally charged memory from the past, the emotional mind responds by triggering the feelings that went with that remembered event. The emotional mind reacts to the present as though it were the past. So yet again we as trainers must create new events that the student's EQ will see as past events in the test room.


Before subjecting our students or trainees to any form of test or assessment we should constantly and throughout be accessing the mental check list that I have outlined below. Every encounter with our students be it training, setting homework, testing, is an opportunity for positive programming or reprogramming. We should be aware and conscious at all times of the effect of our actions on our students' EQ. We cannot be responsible for the ultimate outcome but we can certainly input a maximum amount of positive data and show them how to do likewise which will help their systems to boot up fast in the test room, run smoothly and avoid unwanted viruses in their systems.

What are the key ingredients to emotional re-learning?

Check list:

    Identify stressful feelings

  • Assess their intensity in test situation

  • Express and exorcise them

  • Manage emotion

  • Control emotion

  • Reduce stress

  • Recognise the difference between stress and lack of knowledge

  • Remember that to be effective learning must be affective

Judy Churchill Ballet Shoes and Slippers. First published in Humanising Language Teaching, Year 4, Issue 4, July 2002 old.hltmag.co.uk
Republished in ELI Resource 2 Year IX, Nov.-Dec 2002-Jan 2003 ISSUE 2
Judy Churchill Coping with exam stress - the demystification and relaxation process. First published in IATEFL TEA SIG Newsletter Issue June 2003
Republished in HTL Yr 5 Issue 5, September 2003
Republished in The Teacher ELT April 2004
Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence Gottman What Predicts Divorce John Hunsley (Internal Dialogue During Academic Examinations) "Cognitive Therapy and Research". (Dec.1987)
Joseph Ledoux Emotional Memory Systems in the Brain/ "Emotion and the limbic system concept". 1992 Alistair Horscroft Discovery Health Channel. March 2004 Daniel Goleman (on the terror of the exam) "Vital lies, Simple truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception". 1985 Dr. Anne Richardson "The Power of Perfume". published in Marie-Claire November 1994 Issue UK edition
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