Tag Archives: Academic Success

Friendly Competition: Using Stress to Succeed

I have just read a New York Times article, “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart,” that has profoundly changed the way I think about stress.  It is a must read.

The article summarizes recent research, including that of Rochester’s Jeremy Jamieson, investigating the effects of stress on academic performance.  Researchers argue that people can fall into two broad categories, “Warriors” and “Worriers.”  (About half of all people fall in just one, the rest of us have a mix.)  Warriors have brains that flush stress-inducing dopamine, so they revel in the challenges of threatening environments—like taking a test.

Worriers process dopamine more slowly, so they can get overwhelmed quickly by stress.  These people have superior executive functions—reasoning, problem-solving, planning—but they are vulnerable to the “engine” being flooded with too much “gas,” or stress.  So they don’t perform well, even though they’re “smart.”

Jamieson conducted research on Harvard undergraduates, giving half of them a card saying that “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better…(so) you shouldn’t feel concerned… (just) remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”  This had an amazing positive effective, immediately boosting mock GRE scores by 50 points.  Just by being reassured that stress can be a positive.

Think about this for just a second.  Jamieson and his colleagues are telling us that stress is a natural, physiological reaction to a challenging situation.  Stress makes us more alert, and when it is embraced (and this is critical), it can make our brains fire on all cylinders.  Think: “How do I kill the bear that is threatening my cave?”  He is saying that “managing stress,” a modern mantra, should not be an effort to suppress or dismiss stress but to use it to attack, to compete, to succeed.

The Times article, which you should read carefully and repeatedly, goes on to look at ways that we can train students to embrace stress.  This is mostly done through what might be called “Friendly Competition,” where students learn to compete intellectually in a non-threatening but still challenging situation.  Like a chess match, a math contest, or a trivia game.

I can imagine how teachers could use games and gaming more regularly, perhaps in groups.  This could promote a fun, team-oriented approach to solving problems, but with the stakes of winning or losing.

Perhaps more importantly, research like this can make us all more aware of whether we are Worriers or Warriors—or a little of both.  And with that in mind, we can begin to see stress less as a burden and more of an invitation to take on a challenge.


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Filed under Academic Success, Study Skills

International Student Success

This week in Washington, an extraordinary group of embassy officials and university representatives gathered at the University of California Center to discuss many issues around international education.  The Washington International Education Conference, sponsored by the Washington International Education Council (headed by Bill Fish), gathers each year to exchange ideas and to expose university officials to the diplomatic community.

I will be writing several blogs about this experience and the issues raised there.  Here, I’d like to touch on some ideas I shared in my own address to the conference.  (Bader Address to WIEC January 2013).  I shared with participants my observation that universities tend to focus on non-academic issues when supporting their international students.  These include securing a visa, getting to campus, and becoming culturally acclimated.  While these services are critical, they do not directly support academic success.  Indeed, internationals face a series of challenges:

They are focused on outcomes, not process.  Many traditional education systems, such as those in China and India, require students to excel at standardized tests.  So international students tend to be focused on final exams, rather than class participation and interim assignments.  This misunderstanding can lead to failure.

They are very dependent on their families.  This is understandable, so far from home, but their families can misunderstand the American college environment.  They may insist a student major in Biology, for example, to prepare for medical school, when other avenues are open.  If their student has little interest in Biology, that can cause problems.

They don’t understand a liberal education.  Internationals often focus on accomplishment and credentialing–which is understandable.  But they fail to realize or even appreciate the many learning opportunities of a liberal, exploratory education.

They think careers and majors are the same thing.  Majors are a teaching tool in American colleges, not a road to expertise.  They poorly predict professional choices.  And yet internationals insist that some majors are more worthwhile, even when lesser known programs (say, History) might be a better fit and result in more success.

They rely on memory.  Many internationals believe that absorbing and the regurgitating information is their primary intellectual goal.  Yet American professors are expecting higher levels of thinking, where problems are solved and connections are made–even in the sciences.

They are vulnerable to failure.  We are so impressed by our international visitors that we often overlook their human frailties.  Determined as they are, they are no immune to personal difficulties and failings.  We must treat them as the sons and daughters of our neighbors, caring for them as we would our own children.

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Filed under Academic Exploration, Academic Success, Cause of Academic Failure, Choosing a Major, International Exchange