Overcoming Testing Anxiety: Why We Choke

As human beings, we’ve all experienced a phenomenon called choking, the inability to perform in a way that was expected. The topic about choking is intricately laid out in the podcast, “Stage Fright” hosted by Shankar Vedantam with guest Sian Beilock, from why we choke even in the simplest situations and what we can do about it. 

First let’s go into why we choke. Just as Beilock said in the podcast, parallel parking is something that she believes is good at, but when someone is watching her, she just can’t seem to parallel park, even though this is a task that comes so naturally to her when she is alone. One of the reasons why people tend to choke in these mundane situations is because we become hyper aware of the situation and almost feel as though we are watching ourselves “fumble the ball” in a third person perspective. No matter how well we know how to do something, there’s a chance that being in a high-pressure situation (such as having an audience) can ruin your rhythm. And this is what occurs when we switch from our procedural memory to working memory. 

So what exactly is the difference between procedural memory and working memory?

Working memory is a form of very short term memory. This type of memory is very transient and will disappear from your memory if you don’t “solidify” it, such as writing something down.  Our working memory has limited capacity to store information as well. An example of this is trying to remember a phone number. On the other hand, we have procedural memory, which is a form of long term memory that is involved in recalling skills and actions that we know well. 

As we begin to become better and more comfortable with complicated tasks, that skill switches from working memory to procedural memory, where we don’t need to be conscious of every single step of the procedure in order to perform the procedure, rather effortlessly. However, when choking occurs, it’s likely due to the fact that we go back to thinking like beginners, switching from our procedural memory to our working memory. 

Something that is very relevant to the physics classroom that is mentioned in the podcast is math anxiety. When a study was conducted on students who were told they were about to take a test that involves math, the area of the brain associated with pain lit up, indicating that people heavily associate negative feelings toward math, prior to even taking the math test. And once they took the test, the group of students performed worse. But the conclusion that they arrived at from this study is something that I believe more of us should be like: it’s not that the students were anxious because they were bad at math but rather they were bad at math because they were anxious. 

So what’s the answer to choking?

Well first, performing under pressure is definitely something that we can get better at with more practice and exposure. For physics students, this can look like simulation quiz conditions in preparation for the weekly quizzes: two challenging questions, with only a calculator and thirty minutes to complete in a quiet room without any other resources. The more we become used to the performance pressure, the more our bodies will be able to adapt to these high-pressure situations. And this is the idea behind closing the gap between training and competition. 

 The physiological responses associated with anxiety from a high-pressure situation are very similar to the same physiological responses we show when we become excited. So this essentially comes down to re-interpreting the physiological response. 

Another solution to choking could be distractions from the high-pressure situation. If you have an exam coming up, it can be extremely helpful to take your mind off of the exam itself because the exam is what is bringing you anxiety and stress. This can look like so many different things such as singing a song, counting backwards, making a mental grocery list for the upcoming weekend, pretty much anything that can and will take your mind off of that anxiety induced trigger. 

So give these a try the next time you have a weekly quiz coming up. Or if you have an exam or presentation for a different class, try these techniques out because they aren’t limited to the physics classroom. 

Source: Stage Fright | Hidden Brain Media. (2021, July 20). https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/stage-fright/