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Teaching Mental Rehearsal to Improve Student Performance

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll learn about mental rehearsals, including both the positives and the pitfalls to these simulations of the mind. We'll focus on a research-based technique that can help students improve performance realistically.

Mental Rehearsal

Imagine you're a downhill skier competing in the Olympics. How do you prepare to beat the competition? Of course, years of training, practice, and building your skills have led to this point. But what mental preparation have you done? Athletes often use mental preparation to give themselves an edge. This may include a particular technique known as mental rehearsal.

Mental rehearsal, sometimes called mental simulation, involves imagining yourself carrying out the activity you want to do prior to doing it. This lesson will give you guidance on how to apply a variation of this strategy to help improve student performance.

Notes of Caution

Does this sound like magical thinking to you? You imagine yourself performing a task, and then when you actually do it, you perform better as a result. Sounds a bit too simple, right?

It's important to remember that mental rehearsal cannot take the place of the work and preparation required to perform well. For a student, that means learning the material and practicing what has been learned. Mentally rehearsing for a test, for instance, is a strategy to use in addition to, not instead of, all of the hard preparatory work. The technique definitely doesn't make it possible for a student to skip crucial steps in the learning process or avoid putting in the work it takes to do well on a test.

Another important cautionary note is that mental rehearsal is a technique that can backfire if not used correctly. While it may seem harmless to encourage students to be positive and envision themselves achieving their goals, consider this scenario:

  • A student takes the time to imagine an ideal scenario for taking a test. In this mental rehearsal, he flies through the test questions and doesn't run into any problems. The student imagines himself succeeding flawlessly! But the student, confident in the mental image of success, fails to predict setbacks. When faced with a few problems in the test, the student feels stuck and even more frustrated than if he hadn't used the mental rehearsal technique.

It is better if a student uses mental rehearsal to anticipate challenges and problems. But wait! You also don't want this scenario:

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