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The Lost Art of 'Take 5'

  • 09 December, 2022

So, I've had my PE license for 10 years. And still, it's arguably my hardest-fought professional achievement. If you are in the process of preparing for this exam, then you know exactly what I'm talking about!

Now, before I become more irrelevant than I already am (at the ripe old age of 37), I wanted to provide some useful test-day words of wisdom. Something beyond "study hard," "take a review class," or even "take a walk at the scheduled break."

I think I've finally found it. Take 5!

The Lost Art of 'Take 5'


1. Test day is finally here!

Yay. You get in your car, try not to drink too much coffee because you couldn't sleep last night, and drive down to your friendly neighborhood testing center.

You park the car without taking off anyone's door. Nice. Well done. You've got this exam, baby! New professional license, here we come.

Then you get out of the car. Despite a paranoid part of you saying you can get thrown out of the exam for even looking at someone in the parking lot BEFORE THE TEST, you see someone also going to an exam. What test are they going to take? Seems like a harmless question to ask.

So, you ask. And the person returns a death glare. And it catches you by surprise because you expected a friendly answer. WRONG! Probably an engineer, no social skills, right?! Jeesh.

After you stop talking, you just explore the scene silently. You see more anxious test takers with that "deer-in-the-headlights" look. And you know they're all just scared. And yet they look and act so angry. And then you suddenly realize that you have the same look, so no wonder no one is even trying to talk to you anymore.

You keep walking through the door where the exam proctor greets you with a less subtle version of the look. They still look serious but somehow used to it. The proctor then asks you several questions and escorts you to a locker where you put away all your valuables. Then you're led into a room full of cubicle walls and cameras.

The inner thoughts ring loud in your head. Get me out of here! The sooner we get the exam done, the sooner the pain will be over! But what if we go too fast and make mistakes? And what if I don't have enough time to finish the exam?

Whoa. Pause. Listen to your body. Take a 5-minute break if you need one.

A 5-minute break isn't necessarily a new idea. "Take 5." Pretty common slang, right? So, what does that look like in a PE test environment?

2. What does it mean to really "take 5"?

NCEES already provides two types of breaks during the exam: scheduled and unscheduled. The one scheduled break is 25 minutes in duration, at the midpoint of testing. Unscheduled breaks are at will and taken by raising your hand to the proctor, at which time you are escorted out of the exam room.

During an unscheduled break, you're allowed to move and go outside; you have access to beverages, food, and items on the Pearson VUE Comfort Aid List (https://home.pearsonvue.com/Test-takers/Accommodations/Pearson-VUE-Comfort-Aid-List-PDF.aspx). But by the time you get checked out, take your break, and checked back in, 10 minutes or more have likely gone by. And most importantly, during unscheduled breaks, the exam clock keeps ticking. Maybe not the best idea if you're feeling already stressed and overwhelmed!

So here is a third option, one you won't find in the NCEES guide. You guessed it! Take 5.

Now 5 minutes really means 3 minutes for some people and 7 for others, but the "take 5" should be a break shorter than 10 minutes (otherwise just take an unscheduled break)! The intent of the take 5 approach is to disarm the battle between brain and body, who are both vying for your energy and resources. The brain says, "I need to remember how to use this equation." But the body, all jacked up and forced to sit for hours, says, "I need to leave this place." While the brain rightfully consumes our conscious energy during the exam, the body's regulation of our fight/flight response consumes most of our unconscious energy.

3. What is happening to your body during the exam?

A more recent development in the field of neurobiology is the Polyvagal Theory. This stuff is some pretty heady medical lingo, so I'll keep it as engineer-friendly as possible. Better yet, watch the video from the guy who coined it. Trust me, it's easier than reading the book - Dr. Stephen Porges: What is the Polyvagal Theory.

Ok wow. Did you catch all that???? Yeah, me either.

In essence, Polyvagal Theory describes the way the circuits in the brainstem work, and our nervous system is functionally like an upside-down triangle.

"It percolates information up the brainstem to the higher brain structures enabling access to different brain areas," says Dr. Porges. "So, when we are in safe states, we can access high cortical functions. But when we are in danger states, those systems turn off and we get defensive."

Interesting. Can you see the translation to test day?

Polyvagal Theory states that the higher we stay in the structure, the more access we have to diverse information. I would guess this would include information such as engineering experience, study material, or a School of PE review course. You know, things that would be useful in passing the exam.

Dr. Porges argues, "if you are in a constantly dangerous environment, your nervous system is going to find it difficult to detect safety." So, to be more in a state of safety seeking is to be in a state of more fight or flight and a low threshold to react.

"When you're in that state, you're going to misread other people's cues, so you're more likely to see neutral faces as being aggressive. And you're more likely to see fearful faces as if they were angry, so you can really confound difficult relationships, and you won't be able to use people to self-regulate."

Boom. Well played, Dr. Porges.

4. So how can I regulate during the exam?

I leave the answer to that question to Dr. Porges' counterpart, Deb Dana, LCSW. Deb has translated polyvagal theory into "real world" applications beyond theory. Deb runs the Rhythm of Regulation program out of Southern Maine and authored the book, Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection.

In that book, Dana provides therapists and patients with great examples of regulating activities, such as yoga, swimming, yelling with no one around, going to a spin class, and connecting with safe people like family and friends. Basically, a lot of stuff not applicable to an exam environment.

Nice.

But think about it - adapted to an exam environment, strategies may include stretching your feet and hands, looking out a window at nature, or doing some breathing exercises. And since connection with safe people is not possible, what about mentally recalling an encouraging message from a loved one?

Now, there are rules to what you're allowed to do. Electronic devices and other potential reference material cannot be accessed for obvious reasons. Those are back in your locker. And you can't eat anything because your calculator isn't edible.

5. So how can I regulate before the exam?

Practicing your unique take 5 at home during a practice test is the best preparation you can give your body. And not just a practice test from your home office - try to find a place that best simulates the test environment, like an office, to make your body feel all the more "unregulated."

Or maybe have a friend host an "exam party" or get together to share safe social encouragement with people you care about. (I guess it's only awkward if you don't pass?).

Remember - you aren't just training your brain for the exam. It's a full-body experience!

Your body will thank you, though, if you don't grind too hard every time you study for the exam. So, if you have young children, engage them during study time by holding them in your lap while watching a practice exam. Or text a friend and request some encouragement. That safe engagement may be a nice memory to recall during a take 5 at the testing center!

6. How does take 5 translate to the "non-exam" engineering world?

In the real world, more of Deb Dana's regulating activities are more "acceptable" to engage in. Ironically, with more people working at home now than ever, there is a lack of both safe and social engagement opportunities, but there are also opportunities to freely commit to regulating activities.

Recall that the best regulating activity, according to Polyvagal theory, is safe and social connection with other people. Friends (and family, assuming they feel safe) are often conveniently accessible in a remote-work environment.

Conclusion - Take 5 takes practice

There is no real definition for take 5. Why? Because it might not even be 5 minutes. Is it 3 minutes? 7 minutes? Let your body tell you what it needs. Take some practice exams and practice your take 5. Try mini-naps with your eyes closed, weirdly useful chair stretches, anything to make you feel safer. Get it dialed before the exam. Just remember - make sure you fit within the rules of what NCEES allows.

It's probably better than trying to figure it out during the exam - you'll only be using lower brain structures anyway! And who knows, those fellow test-takers and the exam proctor might not feel so scary after all.

Also remember - if you do need special accommodations beyond take 5, scheduled, and unscheduled breaks, do not hesitate to apply using the following link: ADA exam accommodations - NCEES.

Best of luck on the exam!

If you are wanting to boost your career with an engineering license, look no further than School of PE! For over 18 years, we have helped thousands of busy individuals pass their professional certification and licensure exams and look forward to helping you next! Sign up for a course today.
About the Author: Benjamin Cote

Ben Cote, PE, ENV SP passed his Civil (Geotechnical) PE Exam in 2012 after engaging in School of PE online preparation courses. He is currently employed as a Technical Sales Manager with AeroAggregates of North America, and is the founder of EngiMentor.com, a social media project for making engineering more accessible. He lives with his wife, 3 kids and 2 dogs in Colchester, CT.

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