Friday, July 20, 2012

Don’t “Choke” on the Bar Exam

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Sian Beilock, Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Chicago and author of Choke: What The Secrets of the Brain Reveals About Getting It Right When You Have To.  The lecture focused on the science of why individuals choke under pressure and how to best avoid performance anxiety.  While the lecture did not focus on the stress applicants feel taking the bar exam, it was wholly applicable. 

When pressure and anxiety to perform is high (like the bar exam), the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our working memory, focuses on the anxiety instead of recollecting essential information for successful performance. When a student is filled with too much anxiety, regardless of their aptitude, the anxiety interferes with their thought process and almost turns off their working memory to anything other than the stress of the event.  This is why we often see highly intelligent and capable students perform below expectations in testing situations. 

There are several ways to help students avoid this prefrontal cortex reaction.  One, which is often employed by commercial bar reviews, is taking practice tests under timed conditions.  These simulations help the brain overcome stress and will likely prevent students from “choking” during their actual test because they have established coping mechanisms to deal with their stress. Therefore, during the real test, they can practically operate on autopilot without stress interfering with their working memory.

Additionally, positive self-talk is an important aspect of testing success.  Professor Beilock suggests that writing about your stress for ten minutes before an exam will free working memory.  This cognitive function can instead be applied to performing well on the exam. 

The simple act of acknowledging fear and stress prior to taking the bar exam could make the difference between passing and failing.  I have told each of my students, especially those struggling with intense testing anxiety, to try the writing exercise each morning of the bar exam.  I am hopeful that it will calm their fears and help them reach their highest potential next week. 

Lisa Young

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2012/07/dont-choke-on-the-bar-exam.html

Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink

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