Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Stress, performance, and schooling

Pressure and stress can impact performance. Some of us handle stress well and it improves performance. Others of us become consumed by stress and it negatively affects performance.

An article in the New York Times magazine explores this topic and presents some arguments that explain from a biological, genetic point of view the differences that can be found in people and why some thrive in a stressful situation and others fall.

As I read this article from my "educators" worldview, I could see how some would argue that is why the results of school assessments that may create stress should either be eliminated or viewed cautiously.

But stress is a part of life. Jobs are stressful. Deadlines, expectations, assignments all can create stress.

I do not believe that we can, nor should we, eliminate all the stress that is inherent in education.

Don't get me wrong. I do not believe that we should create stressful situations. I am not in favor of having teachers create classroom environments where students are afraid of making mistakes or trying new things or thinking out loud.

Let me emphasize, I am in favor of classrooms and schools that encourage creativity and exploration. I want our teachers and students to wrestle with questions and explore, to experiment and expand their range.

But at some point there comes a time when a student needs to be able to demonstrate that they have learned something. Whether it is through a standardized assessment, a performance based assessment, or some other tool for evaluation, there will be a time when I need to know as the teacher if a student has the skills to do certain things.

That can be stressful!

Knowing that there will be stressful moments in education, can I do things that will help students manage stress in a positive manner?

The good news is there are things that can and should be done.

For example, the article in the New York Times magazine noted this experiment:

The first experiment was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Before taking a practice test, the students read a short note explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, “you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”
Just reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. They scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test. 
Another blog post I read quoted from the book Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to, which said:
“Let’s take a moment to reflect on what happens when students arrive to take a standardized test such as the SAT. One of the first things test takers do is to check off boxes to indicate their race, their sex, GPA in school, and even their families’ income levels. Providing this information can undermine the students’ self-confidence, especially if they feel pigeonholed into a group that is stereotyped as academically challenged or unsuccessful.
The consequences of filling out this information for test performance can be dire. Indeed, psychologists Kelly Danaher and Christian Crandall at the University of Kansas found that simply moving the standard background questions about sexual identity from the beginning to the end of the test led to significantly higher performance by women on the AP calculus test.
Extrapolating from these AP calculus test findings alone, the researchers estimate that, each year, an additional 4,700 female students would receive AP credit that could advance their standing in college math classes if questions about test takers’ sex always came at the end.”
Educators can help students learn to deal with stress in positive ways. 
Because stress is a factor in performance does not mean we should eliminate the stress but we should help our students learn to handle the stress. We prepare students for life when we do that. 

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