Book Riff

Good Ones

Choke: Test-taking - - - a different way to look at test-prep?

CJ Westerberg, October 28, 2013 8:59 AM


photo:  JAK247 Flickr

"Performing poorly in pressure-filled testing situations
can also lower people's confidence
in their ability to succeed
and their willingness to venture further in particular areas."
Sian Bellock

More on Testing, One, Two, Three . . .

CIMG0353.jpgby C.J. Westerberg  

I actually wanted to read the book, Choke, "What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To," as it related to tennis champion Novak Djokovic's dramatic rise and wins over long-time #1 and #2, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal.  Prior to his stellar 2011 streak, Djokovic was known to choke on big points where it mattered most.  So what changed?
What I didn't expect was how much of this book was about overcoming test-taking anxiety and how to perform better on tests.  I thought how crazy is it that we dedicate so much energy, time and money related to better performance on high-stakes standardized tests but that is a present reality in our education system.  While tests can be a valuable assessment and learning tool, especially when they are formative and when they provide immediate feedback, too often we conflate test outcomes with total "learning," especially if used as the sole summative evaluation tool. Tennis is something one chooses to do and by its very nature will include competition.  Learning doesn't need competition to happen.   But let's get back to choking, according to this book:

Choking under pressure is poor performance in response to the perceived stress of a situation.  Choking is not simply poor performance, however.  Choking is sub-optimal performance.  It's when you - or an individual athlete, actor, musician, or student - perform worse than expected given what you are capable of doing, and worse than what you have done in the past.  This less-than-optimal performance doesn't merely reflect a random fluctuation in skill level - we all have performance ups and downs.  This choke occurs in response to a highly stressful situation.

I played tournament tennis and choked on certain points yet continued to work on strategies and techniques to overcome the choking that can come with nerves.  Tennis players talk about this often.  Being loose or being in the zone usually meant not overthinking, not making careless mistakes, and somehow flying above the anxiety wire.  We all have our tricks and ways to overcome nerves, or like Rafa Nadal, using one's nerves to perform better.  Having rituals. Even singing songs in one's head during a point.  Breathing properly.  

Yet how does choking relate to education other than test scores?  Poor performance relates to a snow-ball effect and could entail being "pegged" at a young age.

Performing poorly in pressure-filled testing situations can also lower people's confidence in their ability to succeed and their willingness to venture further in particular areas.  A girl who bombs a math test may decide that girls really can't do math and thus choose a path through her schooling that limits her exposure to this subject.  It's easy to see how a recursive cycle could emerge here.   Poor math test performance leads to avoidance of math classes, which in turn means knowing less math, poorer test performance, and so on.

What to do?  Author Sian Bellock offers "Tips to Ensure Success Under Stress" such as reaffirming your self-worth, mapping out your complexities, write about your worries, meditate away your worries, pausing your choke, and several others.  One that caught my eye, in particular, since it is the topic of many conversations educators and parents have about test-prep:

Practice under pressure.  The old adage that practice makes perfect can do with a bit of adjustment.  Studying under the same conditions you will be tested under - for instance, in a timed situation with no study aids - helps you get used to what you will experience on test day.  There is also research suggesting that testing yourself on material (rather than simply studying it) helps you remember it better in the long term.  After all, you are going to be tested during the test so you might as well practice being tested.

That last line is a head-spinner.  Counter this line of thinking with Jay McTigue's "Understanding by Design and Instruction" from the book, "On Excellence in Teaching" (p. 272) (ubD model, Wiggins & McTigue 2005):

Ironically, such test-prep methods are not likely to yield long-term achievement gains on accountability tests for two reasons:

Most students will not find a steady diet of test-prep drills and worksheets to be particularly meaningful, and accordingly, they will not put forth optimal learning effort.  Also, many teachers resent the pressures they feel to prepare for tests in ways that do not reflect their best teaching toward the most important outcomes.  Principals may demand a full commitment to test prep, but teachers' actions are likely to be halfhearted.

Analysis of international (TIMSS, PISA), national (NAEP), and state assessments reveal that the most widely missed items are those requiring higher-order thinking and the ability to transfer learning to a new context, not those testing basic knowledge and skills (of the sort that are typically "practiced" in a decontextualized fashion).

What say ye all? Is some test prep a good thing? Are we to think that schools that don't do test-prep as doing a disservice to our students, especially those who choke? What if test
prep entailed psychological-prep rather than what we now associate it with -
prepping content?

How often have students been told not to worry about the test, relax,  even though they know much is riding on the outcome?  Mental prep is a long-term life skill as opposed to standard test-prep fare which is often memorization-based, garbage-in, garbage-out in nature.

In an ideal world, test-prep should not be necessary. Students should do well if they understand the material, the argument goes. Choking is just an excuse. Or, is it? 

(Ideally, one test should not be the gate of entry to anything . . . but that is another topic -  see related posts below).


Related The Daily Riff:
The Achievement Gap Within Each Family

21st Century Skills:  A Thorny Issue in the Classroom - Daniel Koretz 

The Important Distinction Between Feedback and Measurement by Schools

Why Testing Fails:  How Numbers Deceive Us All

Campbell's Law in Education: Test Scores vs. Accountability

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