With students’ test scores soon to affect how federal aid to their schools is allocated and spent, educators are looking for whatever tools might give their students an advantage on high-stakes exams. Now, some 200 schools are using heart-monitoring software to help their students learn how to manage emotions such as anxiety and frustration so they can improve their performance during testing.

Students who experience extreme anxiety, frustration, or worry tend not to do as well on exams as they could, the software’s proponents claim.

“You want a little adrenaline because it gives you a little edge, but often anxiety goes over the edge,” said Jeff Goelitz, program developer for the Institute of HeartMath, a nonprofit research organization in Boulder Creek, Calif.

Goelitz and his colleagues at the institute developed Freeze-Framer, a software program based on more than 10 years of heart research that helps students manage mental and emotional stress and smooth out stressful heart rhythms.

“Emotion dictates where our attention is,” Goelitz said. “If your emotions and thinking brain are not in sync, then your ability to think straight is jeopardized.”

Different emotional states affect the patterns of the heart, Goelitz said, so HeartMath figured if people could learn to control their heart patterns, they could control their emotional states and perform better.

“What anxiety does is it creates a noise, a mental static, so it blocks our ability to retrieve what we know,” he said. “The worry overloads the brain circuits, the ones needed for retaining information.”

While sitting at a computer, students insert their finger into a pulse sensor that is plugged into the computer. The heart rhythms are then displayed in a graph on the computer screen, so students can see what their heart rhythms look like.

Students are asked to shift their focus to their heart and breathing, then generate a positive image and hold onto this state for five to 15 minutes while they watch their heart rhythms change. Throughout the exercise, students learn what positive emotions look and feel like, so they can train themselves to move their heart rhythms from jagged to smooth.

Once they’ve mastered that, students play three different games to practice their new skill. In one game, students use their positive emotional state to turn a black-and-white meadow scene into color on the computer screen. In another game, students move a hot-air balloon off the ground by holding a positive emotional image. If students lose their positive state, the balloon begins to fall.

“Freeze-Framer trains students to get in this optimal learning mode,” Goelitz said. However, “the critical part is taking that calm, focused learning state and applying it when taking a test.”

Twenty high school seniors from the Minneapolis Public Schools who had failed the state’s exit exam five times or more did just that.

They passed the Minnesota Basic Standards Test after using Freeze-Framer for three weeks. Collectively, their math scores reportedly increased 35 percent and their reading scores improved a reported 14 percent.

“We found [the software] helped students feel calmer and more focused when they took the test,” said Stephanie Thurik, a reading specialist at Minneapolis Public Schools. “These were all kids who had struggled in school, but stuck with it and were able to pass.”

The Freeze-Framer kit costs $295 and includes a finger sensor, software, music, curriculum, and technical support. Site licenses also are available.

Related links:
Institute of HeartMath

Minneapolis Public Schools