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?
In two recent articles
I participated in a conversation with
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,
and one of his students,
have written an article, "Why High Powered People
Fail: Working Memory and 'Choking Under Pressure'
in Math", to appear in the journal
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.