Information Age Education
   Issue Number 71
August, 2011   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

Some readers may be interested in a recent IAE Blog posting: A major turning point in education. See

"How can you think and hit at the same time?" (Yogi Berra; American League baseball player and manager; 1925–.)

Performing Well And Choking Badly Under Pressure

I (Bob) was comfortably into my conference presentation with a receptive audience when my wife, brother, and sister-in-law unexpectedly entered through the back door. They waved and sat down. I knew that my brother and his wife were driving to San Diego to have dinner with us, but it was distracting to try to imagine why they had arrived so early and to simultaneously continue with my presentation.

I continued on—to laughter. I stopped with a quizzical look, and someone said, “You repeated what you had just said.” I smiled, introduced my family, and blamed my gaffe on their unexpected entrance. It gave me a few seconds to mentally regroup, but things went downhill after that. I don't typically use notes and so found myself worrying that I would mess up the planned sequence and forget key words. I easily responded to questions folks raised, but felt the planned part of my presentation was shaky.
The post session comments and written evaluations were basically positive, but several evaluations mentioned the distraction and subsequent shift in fluidity. What happened? Why would such a minor (actually pleasant) event so distract me?

Choking Up When Performing

What happened to me and countless others is the focus of an interesting informative book by Sian Beilock, Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to (2010). Beilock is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Chicago who focuses on high stakes performance—primarily what causes people to perform well below or well above expected levels in response to a potential stressor.

Her book provides (1) an excellent non-technical explanation of the underlying neurobiology of high stakes performance in such areas as tests, sports, music, business, and sexuality, and (2) useful practical advice on how to perform effectively in such situations.

Many of the practical hints on how to avoid choking up have long been embedded in professional folklore. Examples include: to practice in conditions that resemble the performance setting as much as possible; to take a break and regroup when we're bogged down by a problem that might benefit from a fresh perspective; and to focus on the outcome rather than the dynamics of the activity. Beilock's book connects such conventional wisdom with the relevant cognitive systems and their dysfunctions.

The Cognitive Systems

Attention, our brain's focusing system, is activated by the emotional arousal of a salient environmental change. We can zoom in our attention to examine a presumed key part of the challenge or zoom out to focus on the broader context.

Working memory is a major principally frontal lobe element of intelligence, and especially of abstract thought and rational decision. It's the part of our overall attention and memory systems that allows us to consciously hold in mind a limited amount of important information while we're simultaneously doing something else, such as for the driver to maintain an itinerary in mind while carrying on a conversation with others in the car.

Performance is predicated on the smooth retrieval of relevant information from two separately processed memory systems. Consciously processed declarative memories contain general or autobiographical factual information that can be linguistically expressed. Unconsciously processed procedural memories (which can't be linguistically expressed) are mastered skills, such as riding a bicycle or playing Chopin's Minute Waltz.

Beilock considers a temporary dysfunction in working memory to be an important element in choking, and I suspect that's what happened to me. With a comfortable knowledge of my field, I had discovered that doing presentations without notes forced me to focus my mind on my presentation, but it also enhanced the improvisation that results from audience involvement. Audience questions typically don't distract, because they're within the context of the presentation. Conversely, my family's entrance wasn't in context. It overloaded the system by using my limited working memory space to process an event that was irrelevant to my presentation.

Many things can lead to choking, but two predominate:
  1. It can result from thinking too much about something that should normally be processed automatically, such as shooting free throws in basketball. Beilock calls it paralysis by analysis.

  2. The reverse can be equally bad—to not devote enough conscious attention to what we're doing in a situation that might need some improvisation, but rather to rely instead on established routines that may be inappropriate to the situation.
Racial, gender, and intelligence stereotypes also figure prominently. Your authors recognize that they are sometimes stereotyped as being “ivory tower egg heads.” Beilock hypothesizes that being the object of stereotyping can affect one's performance at a subconscious level. She notes that people who worked hard to overcome a stereotype and reach star status in their field sometimes falter at the worst possible moment, such as during the Olympics or other championship events. They suddenly think about their stereotype and then doubt their capabilities.

Beilock recounts a story about Jason Kidd, the point guard of the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks. Kidd was very highly recruited out of high school, but it took him several attempts to reach the minimum SAT score necessary to enter UC-Berkeley as a student. His playing skills led to his selection as National Freshman Player of the Year.

During an important conference game that year, Kidd, an excellent free throw shooter, was distracted while shooting two pivotal free throws by a large stereotypic sign about the intelligence of athletes that opponent fans held in his line of vision: “Hey Kidd. How do your spell S-A-T?” He missed both free throws.

A recurring stereotype is that females don't do as well as males in mathematics. Many girls grow up in environments in which they “learn” at a deep level that girls are not good at math. However, results from the difficult high stakes test for high school students in the prestigious American Mathematics Competition present a different picture. The boys who scored very high came from a wide variety of schools from across the country, but the girls came from a small set of elite high schools. Indeed, as many girls came from the top 25 scoring AMG schools as from all the rest of the US high schools combined. The difference is that the elite schools didn't perpetuate the stereotype, but rather gave girls the encouragement and opportunity to excel in math. For more information about girls and math, see the article Large study shows females are equal to males in math skills (Moursund, 2010).

Test Taking

You have heard about test anxiety and that some people are much better at taking tests than others. One of your authors (Dave) and his wife Sharon frequently talk about this. Both Dave and his wife have doctorates and have had long, highly productive careers. Dave notes that he was very good at taking tests, and that he frequently performed better on a test than he would have in a non-test environment. Sharon is just the opposite. She frequently choked on tests and her grades often reflected this performance challenge.

We all know that the map is not the territory, and that test scores and ability to perform well in other environments are two different things.

Educational Applications

Schools provide students with many of the kinds of knowledge and skills they'll need in adult life, but such resources accomplish little if we don't also teach students how to perform effectively with them. Subjecting students to high stakes testing programs can have a concomitant value if we help them master test-taking skills that they'll need in one form or another throughout life. The secondary school extra-curricular programs in many respects do a better job of teaching performance pressures than the regular curriculum, which tends to focus on paper/pencil performance. Beilock's book provides much useful information about how to help students and adults perform effectively when the stakes are high.


Beilock, S. (2010) Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. New York: Free Press.

Moursund, David (10/3/2010). Large study shows females are equal to males in math skills. Retrieved 8/9/2011 from

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