Here’s a classic Penn story about a classic Penn overachiever.
You’ve gone to every class. You’ve kept up with the reading. You started studying days (weeks?) before this exam. You went to office hours and you saw your tutor. You got all of the practice problems right. You’re about as well-prepared for this exam as humanly possible.
But the moment you flip over that exam booklet you suddenly freeze. Simply put, you choke.
So why is it that you tend to screw up when the pressure’s on?
Well, researchers think that overachievers may be more likely to choke in high-pressure situations, and they think that they know why. In her recently published book Choke, which summarizes many relevant studies, Sian Beilock says that it’s got to do with the way your brain works. When you’re stressed, anxious and freaking out about your performance, you start to pay too much attention to what you’re doing.
When you pay too much attention, you try to use a part of your brain that is already overwhelmed by the consuming act of worrying, so it does a crappy job at doing what you’re asking it to.
When you’re well-prepared and the pressure’s on, you’re better off operating on autopilot — using the parts of your brain you used to practice with all along.
And I hate to say it, but unless you’re truly aware that you are a choking-prone overachiever and take active measures to ease your worry — your brain’s going to overload when it matters most.
And it isn’t just academic overachievers who are prone to choking under pressure. The same goes for the batters that strike out at the bottom of the ninth, the actors who forget their lines on opening night and the sprinters who trip on the day of the race.
So, if you’re someone who freezes up when it matters most, one option is just to stick to courses where you mostly write papers.
But, really, that’s no solution. It doesn’t address the problem at all.
What if your passion is chemistry? Or economics? People shouldn’t be dissuaded from studying what they love because they think they’ll crumble under the pressure of exams.
We’ve got to address the issue here. It’s not fair that some of the most hardworking and bright minds are getting screwed by the high-stakes, high-pressure assessment protocols of college.
I’m not saying that I want to turn Penn into a total hippie school with no grades or exams (it would never happen anyway). But I am saying we’ve got to take these scientific findings into consideration and take a real hard look at the way our school measures aptitude and ability.
Nursing junior Emily Perfetto isn’t as critical about Penn’s high-pressure exams. When I asked her if, in light of these findings, she thought we should change our assessment methods she replied, “I don’t know how things could be changed. If you cater to one sort of personality type, then you have to cater to other student types as well.”
Fair point. But isn’t that just tough luck for those students who crumble under pressure?
Maybe it’s just that Perfetto has had a different experience with being graded at Penn. She explained that the School of Nursing “probably has the widest range of ways for you to show your abilities” and said that most of her courses include papers, tests and practical, hands-on exams.
That’s one solution. Use lots of different ways to test students. Or give students options — take a test, give a presentation or write a paper.
I don’t know what the solution is. And honestly, these feelings probably come from my inner overachiever screaming, “This is unfair!” But now that I’ve got to thinking about it, if Penn’s testing methods disadvantage some of the hardest-working students out there, then they’ve got to be changed.
Sally Engelhart is a College junior from Toronto. Her e-mail address is engelhart@theDP.com. Scientifically Blonde appears every other Thursday.Comments powered by Disqus
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