Tag Archives: New York Times

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

Are Elite Colleges Worth It?

Jacques Steinberg asks this question in his New York Times article (December 19, 2010), but he makes no conclusions because the data are too mixed and confusing.  I sympathize.  It’s hard to separate the student from the decision, so you can’t know if a talented student would have thrived and gone on to a life of success by going to a college they did not attend.

I have a different take on this.  Elite colleges are only worth it if they are a good fit.  If a student cannot have an intellectual home that is both challenging and supportive at an elite college, then there are many alternatives.  Finding that fit is more difficult that most students and parents think, as I find most decisions are made on the size or location of the school, rather than a deeper sense of its community and curriculum.

Complicating this is that “elite” colleges, already a slippery idea (i.e., what is “elite”?), vary incredibly from each other.  The most obvious difference is that every group of faculty is different, showing different strengths, personalities and priorities.  So it’s hard to know if you’d have a better fit in one elite college or another.  And it is worth the extra time to dig deeper to ask questions like:

  • What does the curriculum look like?  What do they require?  How much freedom will you have?
  • What is the sense of belonging and community?  Does it encourage you to be different?
  • What are the specialties and favorite courses of the faculty?
  • How connected is the college to the community and the world around it?

A final thought.  The best feature of a competitive school is not that it is competitive, fancy or “elite.”  It’s that the students there are really smart, highly motivated, and likely to graduate with you.  Over 90 percent of incoming freshmen graduate from these colleges, so you’ll have a solid class to enjoy your college lives together.

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Filed under College Admissions