Thursday, December 17, 2009


Some students perform well in classes and homework assignments but have problems with examinations. Several years ago I had a female students who was one of the extreme cases. She was very meticulous in examinations and answered the questions well. But she took so much time on each question that she could only complete half of the questions. As a result she often performed poorly and even failed in the examinations. At the time, I could not quite understand her problem and was not of much help to her.

I undertand the problem better now, partly from Malcolm Gladwell’s article on “The art of failure - why some people choke and others panic”, in his book “What the dog saw”. Learning usually starts from explicit learning, involving a lot of conscious, deliberate, careful analysis and thinking. Then, as the learner gets better and better at it, the learning is happening more and more implicitly, unconsciously, fluidly, outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain.

Under conditions of stress, however, sometimes the person lose trust in her honed instincts, and the explicit system takes over. That is what it means to choke. Choking is different from panicking, when someone stops thinking under pressure. Panicking is thinking too little, choking is thinking too much.

A panicking student makes wild guesses. A choker is extra careful and second guesses herself. A panicky student should work and prepare harder. Gladwell says, however, choking requires a different solution, perhaps to concern ourselves less with the performer (ourselves) and more with the situation in which the performance occurs. He maybe right, but I am still not quite sure how to do that.

No comments: