Smarter kids can choke under pressure, according to study

June 6, 2014 by Jared Wadley

(Medical Xpress)—Whether it's initiated by their parents, friends or themselves, students often feel pressure to perform well in tests.

That is more intense for typically smarter who, under certain conditions, are more likely to choke on math tests than children with lower memory skills, according to a new University of Michigan study.

Previous studies showed that anxiety consumes people's , which can compromise their performance. U-M researchers sought to test situations that would lead to grade school children feeling pressured to do well on math problems.

The researchers recruited 53 third and fourth graders in China to solve three-digit addition problems. They had to complete the equations from left to right without the aid of paper and pencil – a tactic encouraged by their teachers in school.

In the memory test, students had to solve an equation and were asked to select from two possible answers. The equations were divided into easy, normal and challenging – and each child was tested twice in two days. For the first day without pressure, students were told the test was only for practice, while the "actual" test representing pressure was given on the second day.

Students could complete the entire calculation, which would require them to use their working memory, the ability to remember things while thinking, but is also more accurate. They could also opt to simply perform part of the equation and compare the partial results with the two alternative answers.

For the easy equation, pressure barely affected the students with high or low skills. Both groups did not feel pressured when completing the normal equations.

The challenging equations, however, affected the students differently. When the memory is consumed by pressure, students will likely complete only part of the equation and rely on the choices available to make a decision, said U-M psychology researchers Zuowei Wang and Priti Shah.

When smarter students performed a task that is moderately easy for them, they had enough resources available to them even if some of their attention is diverted by pressure, the study showed. Kids with lesser working may be more affected on these easy tasks because they are, without pressure, closer to reaching their capacity limits.

On difficult tasks, smart students may be closer to their own capacity limits and thus may be affected by pressure, where as their counterparts may use guessing strategies to complete the task.

The findings appear in the current issue of The British Journal of Educational Psychology.

Explore further: Reducing academic pressure may help children succeed

Related Stories

Reducing academic pressure may help children succeed

March 12, 2012

Children may perform better in school and feel more confident about themselves if they are told that failure is a normal part of learning, rather than being pressured to succeed at all costs, according to new research published ...

How Asian American 'tiger mothers' motivate their children

May 16, 2014

An article titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," published in The Wall Street Journal in 2011, has continued to provoke a cultural debate among parents after self-proclaimed 'tiger mother' Amy Chua asserted that Asian ...

Recommended for you

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jun 11, 2014
I know lots of parents who have decided to bring up geniuses and they demand high results and not only in math as the result their children are stressed all the time and cannot concentrate and relax that leads to parents` irritation and kids` despair. To my mind the important task is to bring up happy, self-confident children. I know that my daughter is really good at math but it is difficult for her to write essays, so I allow her to use different resources like this one for help as cannot be equally gifted in all subjects. It is not a problem and we should let our children be themselves.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.