TITLE: Why We Choke Under Pressure AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 22, 2004 10:19 AM DESC: Pressure affects our ability to perform. But who would have thought that it affects stronger performers more than their weaker counterparts? ----- BODY: In two recent articles (here and here), I participated in a conversation with John Mitchell and Erik Meade about the role of speed in developing software development skills. While the three of us agreed and disagreed in some measure, we all seemed to agree that "getting faster" is a valuable part of the early learning process. Now comes an article from cognitive psychologists that may help us understand better the role of pressure. My old cognitive psychology professor, Tom Carr, and one of his students, Sian Bielock, have written an article, "Why High Powered People Fail: Working Memory and 'Choking Under Pressure' in Math", to appear in the journal Psychological Science. This article reports that strong students may respond worse under the pressure of hard exams than less gifted students. This form of choking seems to result from pressure-induced impairment of working memory, which is one of the primary advantages that stronger students have over others. You can read a short article from the NY Times on the study, or a pre-print of the journal article for full details. The new study is a continuation of Beilock's doctoral research, which seems to have drawn a lot of interest in the sports psychology world. An earlier study by Beilock and Carr, On the Fragility of Skilled Performance: What Governs Choking Under Pressure? from the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General supports the popular notion that conscious attention to internalized skills hurts performance. Apparently, putting pressure on a strong student increases their self-consciousness about their performance, thus leading to what we armchair quarterbacks call choking. I'm going to study these articles to see what they might teach me about how not to evaluate students. I am somewhat notorious among my students for having difficult tests, in both content and length. I've always thought that the challenge of a tough exam was a good way for students to find out how far they've advanced their understanding -- especially the stronger students. But I s I need to be careful that my exams not become tests primarily of handling pressure well and only secondarily about understanding course content. By the way, Tom Carr was one of my all-time favorite profs. I enjoyed his graduate course in cognitive psychology as much as any course I ever took. He taught me a lot about the human mind, but more importantly about how a scientist goes about the business of trying to understand it better. I still have the short papers I wrote for that course on disk (the virtues of plaintext and nroff!). I was glad to see some of his new work. -----