Forgive me, dear reader, for this incredibly gimmicky-sounding title, but understanding cognitive offloading will improve your life — and subsequently, your test taking ability. Before I drown you in psychology jargon, I ask this:
Do you know that satisfying feeling when you write out a to-do list? The way your thoughts flow more clearly once you start typing or writing them? Have you ever asked someone (or set your phone alarm) to remind you about something later so you don’t have to hold mental space for it?
These are all everyday examples of cognitive offloading. In short, your brain can only juggle so many things at once — whether it’s keeping information in the background (like remembering something you need to do later) or actively handling a complex task (like planning out an argument for a paper).
Cognitive offloading is anything you do to reduce the cognitive demands of a task: basically, to make it take up less mental space. You can then use that extra mental space to live your daily life less burdened by background stressors and focus on the task at hand, or to engage more deeply with a cognitively demanding task.
A favorite example: if all of your thoughts seem to be spinning around in your head with no clear way to corral them, offloading the responsibility of memory and organization from your abstract headspace onto a concrete piece of paper (or computer screen, if you must) makes things much easier to process.
My unsolicited life advice to you is to buy a journal and use it! This can be especially helpful if you are reading this as someone engaged in the test prep process yourself, in an incredibly formative stage of life rife with excitement, confusion, and anxieties. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I’m not entirely sure when, if ever, that stage ends.
I understand you may have many questions — What does this have to do with test taking? Why is a 23-year-old giving me life advice? Why is the sun setting at 4pm in New York? I promise it’s all related and important somehow.
The good news is it’s fairly simple to apply this concept wherever your test-taking needs carry you. Every test — especially if it has a time limit — is a mind game and cognitive offloading should be a part of your psychological toolkit. Hopefully you’ve already heard or practiced these strategies and can now more fully contextualize them.
In a test-taking context, cognitive offloading can accomplish two main goals: making challenging tasks easier and minimizing the cognitive demand of simple tasks.
The first is easy: write out your work, especially on math tests. If you don’t know how to get the answer, start writing what you know; if applicable, write the simplest equations you are confident in and integrate them on paper instead of in your head. Even the trickiest word problems can often be broken down into a few simple equations, but students get stuck trying to synthesize all of the information into the most comprehensive equation possible before putting pencil to paper. Psychologically speaking, writing more will actually make it easier for you to think
As for the second, the simple task of watching your timing can become incredibly cognitively draining, especially when there’s test anxiety involved. While mitigating test anxiety is a much longer and more complex process, offloading thoughts about time onto a watch is the simplest thing you can do. Any watch with a (silent!) stopwatch or timer will do, but if you’re an LP student you should have our watch, which is pre-programmed with timers for each section of the ACT or SAT. Trusting that the watch is keeping time, only a glance at your wrist away, allows you to release much of the pressure to be thinking about pace as you’re also trying to remember how to calculate arc length or wade your way through a fiction passage. It seems simple, but my students always report feeling less anxious about timing after practicing with their watch — and this lessened anxiety translates to better overall performance on the test.
If this topic is of interest to you, I’d recommend reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, or simply becoming more mindful of the ways in which you already use, and may further integrate, cognitive offloading in your everyday life. Alternatively, track me down at the LP office and I’m happy to ramble about psychology in person.