(Warning: it’s a long post, but it’ll answer your query on the topic thoroughly.)
14 April 1996.
In one of the worst chokes in golfing history, Greg Norman, the then world no. 1, squandered an almost unbridgeable lead of six shots to lose by a big margin of five shots to Nick Faldo.
3 July 1993.
Women’s singles final at Wimbledon.
Jana Novotna lost the first set 6-7 to Steffi Graf. Won the second 6-1, and was leading 4-1, 40-30 in the final set.
She had the momentum and, more importantly, a massive lead. Yet she failed to close out the match and lost five games in a row from there to concede the final set (and the match), 4-6.
The two examples are from sports, but people panic everywhere – public speaking, presentations, sales call, and exams to name few. And at the worst time – usually important, do-or-die moments.
In this post, I’ll discuss why students panic before and during exams, and what they can do to preempt it.
Other posts on test-taking, you may find relevant:
Pressure leads to test anxiety
Pressure leads to test anxiety or worry. It’s pressure that unhinges people, and not even the best are immune to it (Greg Norman and Jana Novotna, for example).
Talking specifically of exams, the pressure you face emanates primarily from two sources:
Societal, family, or peer pressure
This is the most common.
What if I’m not able to measure up to the expectations of my parents, which in many cases could be unreasonable (example: getting first position in the class), and often fueled by what I call neighborhood-effect (example: how can my child lag behind others’)?
What if I don’t get admission to a good college?
Overburdened by expectations, your mind overworks. You extrapolate your potential failure in one test to catastrophic outcome – a bleak future.
But there are so many factors that influence each outcome from step 1 to 4 that, despite failure at step 1, you can still achieve your future goal, which often happens to be your career.
As per this survey by Pew Research Center, 68% of Chinese people think that parents in their country put too much pressure on their children to succeed academically, followed by India (44%), and Kenya (42%).
Such pressures, as we’ve often seen, can be fatal in extreme cases. In the state of Madhya Pradesh (India), for example, more than 4,700 students committed suicide from 2005 to 2014, majority for failing to cope with academic pressure. The issue, in fact, has assumed such proportion that Chief Minister of the state announced that those found pressuring students would be dealt with as criminals.
Though at a lesser extent, in U.S. too academic pressure has taken toll on students.
Pressure also emanates from your peers. You would’ve heard some of these:
“This topic is certainly going to come in the exam this time because it wasn’t asked last year?”
“Oh, you haven’t prepared this. It’s an important, and….”
“I hear that the paper is going to be tough this year.”
You get taken in by these. You start focusing on speculations rather than minding your own work. You absorb negative energy and add to the pressure.
Self-imposed pressure arising from stereotypes
In her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, Sian Beilock, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago and an expert on performance and brain science, refers to the study done by psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson.
The researchers found no difference between the performances of African-American and White students in the group in which the students weren’t asked their race. This is important.
I repeat. The researchers found no difference between the performances of African-American and White students in the group in which the students weren’t asked their race.
But in the group in which the students were asked their race, African-Americans performed worse than Whites.
These students, Whites as well as African-Americans, were of equal academic caliber, and yet …
So, what happened here?
The small, innocuous step of asking the race made African-Americans students conscious about the stereotype that ‘blacks are not as intelligent as whites’, and this awareness was enough to affect their performance adversely.
Note that these African-American students didn’t necessarily endorse the stereotype; mere thought that others believe in it was enough.
Researchers have shown similar results with other stereotypes: girls performing poorly in math when reminded of the stereotype ‘girls can’t do math’ and white men performing poorly in SAT when reminded that Asians are good at math or when the quality of their educational pedigree is highlighted.
And anxiety/ worry results in panic during exams
Pressure leads to worry, and worry causes panic in the examination hall. To understand how, let’s first understand working memory.
Working memory, housed in prefrontal cortex of your brain, is responsible for processing and manipulation of information. (It’s also often synonymously called short-term memory.) It’s working memory that you use when holding and processing multiple information in your brain in, say, an exam.
If pressure makes you worried, then worry takes away some of your working memory resource, leaving less neural resources for the task (exam, in this case) at hand. The key word in the previous sentence is if. Those who don’t let worry affect them much, have more neural resources at their disposal during exams, and hence they’re less likely to choke.
Second, different parts of brain communicate less efficiently when struck with worry.
Beilock sums up these two effects of worry on brain:
Being under pressure alters how different areas of the brain communicate. In a nutshell, the prefrontal cortex works less well and decouples – or stops talking to – other brain areas that are also important for maximal cognitive horsepower. The brain generally works in concert, as a network. When a particular brain area stops communicating with other brain areas, this can have dire consequences for our thinking and memory capabilities [emphasis added].
Sail, and not fail: what you can do to not choke in exams
1. Improve your self-worth
Psychologist Geoff Cohen and his team at University of Colorado studied interventions to reduce the achievement gap (arising out of stereotype ‘blacks are not as intelligent as whites’) between African-Americans and Whites. They asked teachers of a suburban public school in Northeast (U.S.) to administer an ‘exercise packet’ to seventh graders.
The packets contained a piece of paper listing different values people hold (example: relationship with friends or families, being good at art, athletic ability etc.).
Students in one group, say group A, were asked to write the value that was most important to them and articulate the reasons why it was important.
Whereas, students in the other group, say group B, were asked to write the value that was least important to them and articulate why this value may be important to someone else.
That’s all. Nothing fancy.
Then, at the end of the term, the researchers accessed transcripts of all the students. They were surprised to find that the black students in group A (who wrote their most important value) performed better than the black students in group B by about fourth of a grade point, whereas there was no difference between the performances of white students in the two groups. Particularly, there was 40% reduction in racial achievement gap in group A.
These results were no fluke. Cohen and his team ran the same study a year later with different students, but got the same results. They also did a two-year follow-up study, and found that the improvement in the performance of black students in group A wasn’t temporary. It lasted.
What made this difference?
According to Cohen, the small, trivial exercise of writing down the most important value enhanced the self-worth of black students, buffering them to some extent against the stereotype.
So, if you’re beset by a stereotype or you’ve a negative self-esteem (“I’m good for nothing” or “I can never make it competing with so many bright students”), then shed it.
Throw it out of your mind.
As with African-American students, your performance too could also be getting stifled because of this negative self-image. If you work hard and adopt smart strategies, you too can be right up there.
Look for bright spots in your life. You may be more multi-faceted than you think. You may be better than top test-takers in other areas, which too matter in achieving success in future (remember step 3 in the flowchart earlier in the post: there are many factors that determine your career path, and if you’re good in other areas, you can reach where you aspire to reach despite poor performance in a test).
We have a tendency to look more at our negatives than positives. Therefore, it’s a good idea to write your strengths/ qualities on a piece of paper and put it somewhere where you can see it often. Seeing it again and again will reinforce those positives in your mind.
2. Seeing is believing – improve your self-efficacy
In Choke, Beilock refers to the study done by psychologist Nilanjana Dasgupta, wherein her team interviewed 80 female first-year students at two colleges about their views on women’s abilities to succeed in leadership roles. In general, students at both the colleges believed that women were better suited to be followers than leaders.
However, twelve months later when they interviewed again on the same topic, the students at the all-women’s college had abandoned their earlier beliefs that men were better suited for leadership positions. But students at coed college, in fact, expressed even stronger belief in men’s suitability for leadership positions.
Because all-women’s college had more women in leadership and managerial positions. Students in this college experienced it (that women too can be in leadership positions) first hand, and that changed their belief completely.
Seeing is believing.
So, look for examples of others – peers or seniors – similar to you who have done well in the exam you’ll be taking. If they can, so can you: it’ll help you raise your self-efficacy (belief in your ability to do well).
For the same reason, recalling your past success in difficult pursuits (not just academic) will make you more confident of your abilities, improve your self-efficacy.
3. Offset the pressure – it’s only an exam
Matthew Syed in his book Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success describes (in the context of choking in sports) the moments just before the opening race of 500-metre speed skating at 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City:
Some of the athletes are pacing around, steely-eyed, others sitting down and shaking their hands and feet; still others are in earnest conversation with their coaches, rehearsing their tactics and strategy one last time. The roar of the crowd through the curtains is an ever-present reminder that their moment of truth is approaching.
But one competitor is not engaged in any of the familiar last-minute activities. Sarah Lindsay, a twenty-one-year-old British skater, is sitting, breathing slowly, her eyes staring forward – and all the while she is saying something audibly to herself. ‘It’s only speed skating!’ she says. ‘It’s only speed skating!’ ‘It’s only bloody speed skating!’
Lindsay is about to compete in the most important race of her life, and she is downplaying the enormity of the situation. That’s her way of easing the pressure. And if she doesn’t feel the pressure, then where is the question of choking.
This tactic certainly worked for her: she finished way above her ranking and finished in top eight four years later at Turin Winter Olympics. She had had her struggle with choking, but could manipulate her beliefs in the few moments just before the competition.
Unlike exams – which are only a means to an end and rarely an end in themselves – Olympics is much more likely to be an end for most sportspersons. And yet, Lindsay trained her mind just before the event to take the situation lightly, which helped her punch above her potential.
If the exam, like an Olympics, was an end, then pressure and stress was understandable. But exams, at best, could be a means to college admission, scholarship, or employment, and definitely not the end. And if it’s not the end, then there are other paths (besides the exam) that will take you there, or to an end which is even better.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, the renowned American astrophysicist, sums it up very well in his commencement speech at University of Massachusetts Amherst:
Your grades, whatever is your GPA, rapidly becomes irrelevant in your life. I cannot begin to impress upon you how irrelevant it becomes. Because in life, they aren’t going to ask you your GPA. …If a GPA means anything, it’s what you were in that moment — and it so does not define you for the rest of your life.
So, few minutes before you take the test, say to yourself (like Lindsay did), “It’s only an exam. If I under-perform, it’s not going to be the end of the world. There are other paths too which will take me to my goal.”
If you don’t fear a bad outcome or treat it less catastrophically, your mind will be less burdened.
Also, avoid things that add to the pressure: studying new concepts in the last hour, meeting nervous fellow test-takers and absorbing their negative energy, enquiring about the preparation level of others, speculating the content of the test paper, and so on.
It can only harm you, and rarely help.
4. Write down your worries
In this study by Sian Beilock et al., one group of students, just before math exam, were asked to write their deepest thoughts and feelings (expressive writing, in other words) about the upcoming exam in seven minutes. Whereas the other group didn’t get any such task and were asked to just wait quietly for seven minutes.
After the exam, performance of the two groups was analyzed. In the group that waited quietly for seven minutes, high math-anxious (HMA) students performed significantly worse than low math-anxious (LMA) students. In the expressive writing group, however, the difference between HMA and LMA students was significantly less.
The small act of writing made the difference.
In words of the research team:
We favor the possibility that expressive writing lessens the likelihood that math-related worries will capture attention [and hence leave more room in your working memory for task at hand] during the math task.… Another possibility is that expressive writing helps individuals to distance themselves from their immediate sources of stress, which previous research suggests is an important component in accounting for the benefits of expressive writing.
They further add:
When HMA individuals are tasked with solving math problems requiring high working-memory demands, they perform significantly worse than their LMA counterparts. This pattern of results has been documented even in children as young as first and second grade, suggesting that many adult students may have a long history of suffering the deleterious effects of math anxiety [emphasis added].
Do you want to know what exact instructions were given to the students for writing their worries? This may help you write your own 7-minute piece before an important test.
Here they are:
Please take the next 7 minutes to write as openly as possible about your thoughts and feelings regarding the math problems you are about to perform on the Excel spread sheet. In your writing, I want you to really let yourself go and explore your emotions and thoughts as you are getting ready to start the second set of math problems.
You might relate your current thoughts to the way you have felt during other similar situations at school or in other situations in your life. Please try to be as open as possible as you write about your thoughts at this time. Remember, there will be no identifying information on your essay. None of the experimenters, including me, can link your writing to you. Press the enter key at the end of every sentence to start a new sentence in the next row. When I knock on the door please stop writing and cover up the text so that I can’t see what you wrote [emphasis added].
Notice, it’s ‘expressive writing’, and not just any writing. That’s why they were given seven minutes. And this method works for everyone: stereotype or no stereotype, negative self-image or positive self-image.
Positive effect of writing your worries, though, isn’t limited to just math.
Work of researchers at University of Colorado at Boulder found that writing exercise led to similar improvement in the performance of college women in physics. And another study involving ninth-grade students showed improvement in anxious students in biology.
In exams, you won’t get the opportunity to write your worries down. But if you indeed want to write them down, do it few minutes before taking your seat in the test center.
5. Calm yourself through meditation/ relaxation exercises
Several top performers – Tiger Woods, William Ford, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Jennifer Aniston, Ray Dalio, Cameron Diaz, and Clint Eastwood, to name few – profess the benefits of meditation in calming their minds, so important in coping with the stress their super-busy, celebrity lives bring.
Meditation helps you keep a calm, composed mind in stressful situations, like the ones you face when taking high-stakes exams. A calm mind, even though facing the same pressure as others do, is better at disengaging from worries and focusing on the exam.
And students even with no meditation experience can benefit from it. According to Beilock:
Recently, in my laboratory, we have shown that people with no meditation experience at all can benefit from about ten minutes of meditation training before they take a pressure-filled math test. College students who were given a short tutorial in mindfulness before they took a high-stakes test scored on average a B+ on the test (87 percent) while those students that didn’t get the mindfulness training beforehand scored a B- (82 percent). This difference, although small, is remarkable given that both groups performed similarly on a practice test taken before the stress ensued.
Besides meditation, other relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, which you can do even during the exam, too are known to have calming effect in stressful situations. Here is a YouTube video on deep breathing I found useful:
Relaxation exercises calm your nerves, and most of them (breathing exercise, for example) are easy to learn, easy to do, and take just few minutes.
Not a bad idea to make one or more of them a habit.
6. Test under pressure conditions
We hear this time and again: take mock tests under real conditions, conditions you’ll face in the real test.
In her work at University of Chicago, Beilock and her team has shown that golfers who practiced putting in front of an audience were less anxious and putted better under stress than those who never practiced with others looking on.
To quote her:
… even practicing under mild levels of stress can prevent people from falling victim to the dreaded choke when high levels of stress come around [emphasis added].
While taking mock tests, you can’t create the pressure you’ll face on the exam day, but you can certainly maximize the stress by not diluting the conditions.
So, don’t take two-hour mock tests, if the real test is three-hour long. Don’t take coffee break(s), if you won’t take one in the real test. Don’t take the mock test at 4 PM, when the real test is at 9 AM. Don’t use aids (such as calculator) in the mock test, if the real test doesn’t allow them.
Get used to test conditions, to as much pressure as possible, and you’ll be less likely to panic in the real test.
7. Outsource your cognitive load
We saw earlier in the post that worry eats up into your working memory, leaving less neural resources for the task you are at – exam.
In exams with Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs), many students process solutions in mind rather than writing them down. This is fine for most, because it saves time. But, for those who are worry-stricken, keeping too much information in mind further strains the limited neural resource they’ve at their disposal, thereby leading to errors.
So, if you’re prone to panicking in exams, you may find it better to write things down (if not all, then few intermediate steps) in rough sheet in MCQs.
In this hyper-competitive world, even small improvements can make that critical difference to your campaign, the exam.
If you can control panic, you’ll have more control over the opportunities – scholarships, college admission, and employment opportunities – beckoning you.
And, yes, it can be controlled.
Some of the steps – and these are all backed by research – you can take are: improve your self-worth, improve your self-efficacy, believe (and for right reasons) that underperformance in the exam will not crash your world, write down your worries, learn relaxation exercises, and simulate real conditions in mock tests.
You’ll have to work intently at it, though. Many, like Sarah Lindsay, have come out of their choking pattern, and there is no reason why you can’t.
Ultimately, you’ve to decide:
“Do I want to finish as Greg Norman or Jana Novotna did on those fateful days?”
“Or… as Sarah Lindsay?”