Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Final exams. Olympic competition. Oral argument. Job interviews. The bar examination. These are all high-stakes experiences, often competitive, in which successful outcomes depend on strong performance. As discussed last week, in such situations the human brain can adopt different chemical and behavioral states, depending on whether the situation is perceived as a threat or as a challenge. In a threat situation, the brain becomes hyper-alert to danger and error, processes information more deliberately, and shies away from risk. In a challenge situation, the brain pays less attention to detail, processes information in a more relaxed and automatic way, and is open to taking risks that have sufficient promise of reward. How can we use our knowledge of these two mental states, not just to understand our students better, but also to help them do better?
Let's start by noting that the brain can enter these different states at different times even if it is undertaking the exact same activity. A baseball player might step up to the plate in the third inning and see his task -- to try to get a hit -- as a challenge, and the same player could step to the same plate, even holding the same baseball bat, in the ninth inning and see it as a threat. So it's not the task itself that determines our mental state. It's the surrounding circumstances. Early in the game, when the outcome is still up in the air, a player may be "gain-oriented", focusing on accruing advantages (in this case, runs), and his brain will be in challenge mode. In the last inning, though, if his team has a slim lead, that same player could shift his focus and become "prevention-oriented", focusing on maintaining his team's lead by not making mistakes of which the other team might take advantage. In that case, his brain will be in threat mode.
In the same way, our students can undertake the same activity -- issue spotting, say, or answering multiple-choice questions -- at different times, and might find themselves in either challenge mode or threat mode. This is a good thing, a useful thing. After all, human brains evolved to be capable of these two modes, so each mode ought to have some beneficial qualities.
As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out in Top Dog, in an academic setting there can be an optimal sequencing to these modes. Students perform best if they start their semester working in challenge mode and end it working in threat mode.
This makes sense in a general way. At the beginning of a course, students don't know much about the subject, and their goal should be to try to gain knowledge and skill as quickly as possible. A gain orientation is associated with challenge mode -- the brain plays hunches and takes educated guesses, because the risk (primarily, to grades) is low but the potential reward (flashes of insight) is high. Towards the end of the course, though, risk increases, as the student faces more heavily weighted final exams. At the same time, rewards are lessened, since (ideally) the student has already internalized most of the material and is not likely to learn a great deal more. On a final exam, a student is more likely to be in threat mode -- pondering the answer more slowly and cautiously, less inclined to make risky arguments, perhaps even debating word choice as he tries to recall the exact wording of a rule.
If a student is well-prepared for the final exam, proceeding cautiously with their mind in threat mode may be quite favorable. It can encourage methodical analysis, and help the student avoid unnecessary errors. However, there are two potential issues to consider.
First, as alluded to above, there are two sources of risk and reward in law school. One is the knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, and the other is the final grade in the class. A student who downplays either source is at a disadvantage. Reminding students to pay attention to learning the rules and how to use them, and to developing their test-taking skills at the same time, is part of what Academic Success is about. Being able to describe these abilities as complementary sources of risk and reward may provide us with another way of doing that.
Second, while being in threat mode may help a student avoid errors, they still may not perform well if they only enter threat mode for the first time in the final exam. Since threat mode slows analysis and limits the options the brain is willing to consider, it can change the way people behave during exams. We have doubtless all had students who felt confident in a subject all semester and then did poorly on their final, later explaining that they thought of some of the correct responses but abandoned them because they were afraid they might be wrong, and that they spent so much time working on the first half of the exam that they didn't have time to complete the second half. While there are several plausible explanations for such mistakes, one possibility for them to consider is that they had never practiced answering questions in that course in threat mode. If all of their practice was under the speedier, more relaxed challenge mode, then they had never really practiced under exam conditions.
Ideally, humans would have a switch we could activate to shift from challenge mode to threat mode and back. But, while we don't, it is nevertheless possible for professors to influence students and help shift them into threat mode. As Bronson and Merryman explain, teachers can affect their students' brains just by changing the way they present their examinations. If students are given a test and told that they will receive a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on the idea of gaining points, which encourages a gain orientation and thus a challenge mode. If, on the other hand, students are given a test and told that their scores start at 100 and that they will lose a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on not losing points, which encourages a prevention orientation and a threat mode. Even though mathematically the two scoring systems were identical, the differences in presentation caused measurable differences in performance.
Thus, one way to encourage our students to practice for final exams (and oral arguments, bar exams, etc.) in threat mode is to explain, in advance, that you will be scoring their practice work by subtracting points from a pre-determined maximum score. Conversely, students who fall into threat mode too early in the semester, perhaps because they are disproportionately worried about grade risk, might be coaxed towards challenge mode by being given exercises for which they will receive a certain number of points for every plausible point or argument. Even though the tasks the students are undertaking remain the same, we can help their brains approach them differently.