This is the second part in the series dealing with test anxiety. The first part, found here, talked about why people fail under pressure. Now we start to look at what we can do about text anxiety and performance under pressure. We begin with the role of practice.
What We Can Do
So how can we avoid having a student’s working memory become compromised? There are a lot of different methods for doing so.
Practice Really Does Make Perfect
If we want to get better at anything, we have to practice it. A lot. This isn’t a novel idea, most of us know this instinctually or through our experiences. Malcolm Gladwell makes a very compelling argument in his book Outliers that in order to become an expert in any field or task, you must put in approximately 10,000 hours of practice. For example, Tiger Woods needed 10,000 hours of practice before he became a top-flight golfer, and he had amassed that mount of practice at a fairly young age because he had been trained since the age of 2 to play golf. By the time The Beatles had any real success, they had played 1200 times over a period of a few years, playing up to 8 hours at a time.
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom became one of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world because its founders practiced hostile takeover law for decades before hostile takeovers became common – and being a master in that area of law became insanely valuable. That amount of practice shouldn’t be required to avoid the choke on a law school exam, but practice is certainly going to help.
So what might a student do in order to better on pressure-packed law school exams, or even the bar exam? Take lots of pressure packed exams of course! Faculty can’t replicate the pressure of a bar exam perfectly, but they can put the students under pressure as often as possible. For example, one thing we do is have students take lots of timed, in class, for-credit examinations throughout certain courses. Students are subjected to the pressure of doing well to pass their course, the pressure of performing with their classmates around, the pressure of the clock ticking, not to mention the simple pressure placed upon themselves to perform as best they can. This training can greatly improve results, and might actually change the physical wiring of student’s brains.
Practice and experience can actually change the structure and function of people’s brains. London cabbies, who must navigate the city from memory all day, have enlarged hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with navigation and recollection of driving routes. Individuals trained in juggling have increased brain mass in the areas of the brain that understand motion. Musicians, who must have superior control of both hands and be able to coordinate them in complex manners, have enlarged corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is the connection between the two halves of the brain that allows for the two halves to communicate with each other – an essential function for a musician who needs their hands to work together.
This makes sense when you think about our bodies’ ability to adapt to what we throw at them. I may not be able to go out and run a marathon tomorrow, but if I take the time to train my body to be able to do something like that, then it can be done. Likewise, practice under pressure can train our brains to manage pressure and stress much more efficiently. It can teach us to handle the pressure and allow our working memory to function at its highest level.
Practice has another terrific benefit for our working memories. Through practice, mental processes can be automated. Take for example a child learning how to tie their shoes. When the child is first learning this process, it requires most of their working memory to tie that shoelace – they have to focus on the process that was recently taught to them and make sure they are executing the steps properly. After lots of practice, however, the same child can carry on a conversation or perform some other mental task at the same time they tie their shoes. Why? Because they have automated the process of tying their shoes, thus freeing up their working memory for other tasks. Another way to look at it: the process for tying shoelaces has moved from the child’s working memory into procedural memory.
The same process can happen for students in law school. This is why we teach and drill our students on the proper use of IRAC throughout law school, for example. Through long periods of practice, the process of structuring an essay around an IRAC format can become automated. It becomes something the student doesn’t have to think about; they just do it as they have done a hundred times before. That frees up the student’s working memory to focus on handling their facts and doing good analysis.
Another example comes during bar exam preparation. We always teach our students to have rule statements memorized for as many different issues as possible. That way, when that particular issue shows up on the bar exam, the student has that rule statement in their procedural memory ready to go. They don’t have to think about it, they just write. Again, working memory is freed to focus on other things.
Practice is something that many of us already know is very effective in helping students achieve on exams. The rest of the suggested methods for dealing with difficult and stressful exams may not be as apparent to many.
Preparation and Confidence
A related concept to practice is preparation. The concepts are related, yet differ in important aspects. Practicing is when you actually do the task you are ultimately hoping to accomplish – for example, practice exams to get ready for the real exam. Preparation is different – this is the studying required to have the baseline knowledge required to perform well on the exam.
The need for preparation is obvious – if we need to prepare for an exam on ancient Greek history, we must study ancient Greek history, as well as write practice exams. But there is an added benefit to preparation, and it is confidence. When you know that you have thoroughly reviewed all required materials, you can answer questions about that material with more confidence. There are no surprises, and nothing rattles you because you have seen it all before – in both your preparation and your practice.
Famous trial attorney David Boies perfectly demonstrates how important preparation can be. He describes his preparation as such:
“When we showed up for the opening statement, I had read every single exhibit we had marked before we marked it. I had read every single deposition excerpt that we had marked for offering into evidence before we had marked it. I had read every single deposition line they had offered.” Such preparation required reading thousands of pages of documents, something most lawyers don’t so in preparation for trial because of the massive resources required to do so. “There are no surprises for me, but you can’t imagine how few people that’s true for” he says. “There is no way most lawyers do that.”
This preparation gives Boies a major advantage. He knows all of the material so well that he can remain focused on the story he wants to tell – not on reacting to what the other side might be saying. “When I get up there, I have the confidence of knowing what the total evidence record is, and I know how far I can push it and how far I can’t. I know what the limits are, and that’s the way you maintain your credibility.” And it is this credibility that wins him major cases, such as the antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in the late 1990’s. “Most good lawyers lose credibility in a trial not because they intentionally mislead but because they make a statement that they believe is true at the time and it is not.”
Preparation can then clear your working memory to focus on the task at hand. In Boies’ case, he is never caught off-guard by anything during a trial, as happens to so many attorneys. He has seen everything before, and as he says “there are no surprises.” He can focus on his story, on his goals, and not get distracted.