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Stress and Schooling

The NY Times did an interesting article about how stress affects different people in different ways.

With the discussion of stress usually comes the question of nature vs. nurture, which is always, always brought up in an attempt to answer the millions of questions about human behavior.

The article goes on to explain how well students did on practice GREs after being presented with a statement regarding anxiety, right before they were to take their test.

“Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests ‘people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.’ Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, ‘you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.'”

After reading this, their scores increased not only for the practice exam they took after reading that statement, but also for the real GRE exam they took a few months after. They also discovered that after taking saliva examples before and after the practice test that there were physiological changes in their body’s response to stress. I can’t say anything about the biochemical aspects of stress, but I do think that the nature vs. nurture question can’t and shouldn’t be answered with one or the other because they both affect each other.

There was one thing that was ALMOST asked but not quite asked in the article, which is why students including 4th graders are placing such high emphasis on those tests. That fear doesn’t just come from nowhere. There is something personal at stake. But where does that kind of emphasis come from? Do 4th graders really have the insight to see 16 years ahead to se what potential consequences those exams have in the real world? Not to say whether or not they do or don’t determine future path trajectory, but students have chosen those exams as the beast to beat. It is not the difficulty of learning concepts or material in the classroom that makes them worried, it is strictly those exams.

The difficulty with trying to draw conclusions from these experiments is that even though tangible, hard facts (like the saliva test) are introduced, in the end, the one thing being measured is performance. And as such, students have LEARNED that performance is solely measured in these tests, not in the classroom. The article doesn’t talk about the anxiety students get when they can’t understand or grasp a concept. And who can blame them? They’ve thought about the context of their situation more than anyone else. They are a step ahead of their teachers. While professors might be occupied with whether students are grasping the material or not, students are wondering, “Do I need to know this for the test? For the class? For my career?” If it doesn’t help them get their first internship or that entry level job, then why waste time with it?

Still, I think that the skill of dealing with stress properly isn’t emphasized enough, maybe because parents and teachers aren’t sure what the answer to that is. Or maybe it’s because of the nature of how standardized tests are set up in the first place. Just from personal observation, I can tell you that the one and only thing that college students look for when they get the syllabus on the first day of class is how the grade percentages are partitioned. If homework is only 5% of 10% of the class grade while the two midterms are around 80%, why shouldn’t the homework just be sloppily done an hour before class? If a student can correctly take experimental data to get points for in-lab procedure without actually knowing why they are taking those measurements in the first place, then maybe the way those labs are being set up are wrong.

Of course students are going to only care about the grade. Their entire performance is based solely on that letter.


The NY Times makes a good point of how dealing with stress now affects how it will be dealt with in the future. I think a necessary skill which is never taught is the skill to filter out NOISE, or that which is not important. So much of life is just noise; empty conversations that are really just bullshitting, misdirected energy and attention, overestimation of unimportant things, chores in place of real work. All that stuff is filler. And it is important to know what things are truly worth in the larger context. And to know that there are millions of chances to do over again. To have the ability to gauge what is truly at stake. So if homework is only worth 5% in the class, then maybe it’s just noise.

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8 Responses

  1. The idea of NOISE is important, but it’s slippery. Growing up, you learn a lot that you’ll never need to know (precious example), but when you’re grown up, you’ll realize how much there is that you wish you’d learned a long time ago. There is some statistic that I won’t bother to lie about here along the lines of “X% of the jobs people are working in now didn’t exist when the people doing them started school Y years ago”, and X was a pretty big number. And that kinda emphasizes one of the tricky parts about teaching at any level. What’s relevant? How do you prepare your student for the circumstances they’re going to face, when you don’t know what those circumstances are yourself? So what do you do?

    You can teach them how to do one thing really well and hope for the best. I know a guy who spent a lot of time and energy learning how to be a VCR repairman 25 years ago. Then he learned how to fix DVD players 15 years ago. Now I think he lives off his kids.
    You can teach them a little bit of everything. This will leave them hopelessly underprepared for a lot of circumstances they might encounter a lot and with a lot of NOISE they’re never gonna use. If you read a serious news magazine every week for a year, you’ll know a lot more about how your country’s economy works, but you’ll also know a lot more about border conflicts in S.E. Asia that don’t concern you in the slightest.

    So avoiding stress by ignoring the NOISE is a great idea, but how do you identify NOISE in the moment, rather than just with hindsight? And how do you communicate that knowledge to your teachers, who might have different ideas about it?

  2. fabius2013-02-20 @ 00:33

    Isn’t the problem to the contrary – that students are way too good at cancelling out the “noise”?

    Any exam can, of course, only enquire a tiny part of the entire curriculum. Ideally, the exam questions would still cover the entire spectrum of the course. In all reality, however, students never simply learn the course material, they learn very specifically tailored towards the exam. They KNOW that “the professor wants to hear x, y, and z”. Consider that exams should be a MEANS to get people to learn (the ENDS) – but instead, learning has become the means, and the exams have become the ends.

    The entire message of school is this: don’t do the job well (what is the correct answer), appear to do the job well (what does the teacher say is the answer). This is precisely done by learning to cancel out noise, its just that the entire systems’ concept of noise is flipped around: understanding the underlying concept is unimportant, knowing the words by heart is important. (you could say that knowing the proper sequence of signifiers is whats being asked for, but the questions do not probe the understanding of the associated signified. or maybe not, actually. nevermind.)

  3. And the merest suspicion that border conflicts in SE Asia might have something to do with the way another country’s economy works should be left aside as an unfortunate function of a noisy info environment? Au contraire, mon frere. Knowledge is rarely absolute – rather, it becomes useful through its applications (and cross-applications), none of which function in vacuums.

    Teaching a little bit of everything may not prepare someone to successfully enter a technical field without further training, but boy does it give them a platform from which to synthesize, and it could be argued that this is in many ways more valuable as they approach the vagaries of life (which may include but is not just a career/proficiency).

    Different questions, answered by different educational styles: teach the person, or teach the subject? Lots of room for overlap, but they do represent distinct modalities.

  4. And FWIW, I have been stuck in quicksand twice in my life. Although I do appreciate the humor.

  5. >> teach the person, or teach the subject?
    What a poetic homonym.

    Ideally, everyone would have a strength that they’re particularly good at but remain curious and actively seeking throughout their lives. But really, it seems that knowledge is getting increasingly commodified, and students do seem to want just a ticket to some specific dream job. It’s almost like they want an adapter to be able to plug themselves into the system.

    -more on this coming soon

  6. Wait what? Twice? Does that degree of absurd serendipity indicate a charm or a curse?

  7. Indeed – I quite like that analogy: we seek education only instrumentally, as a means of more efficiently marching into the machine’s ugly jaws.

  8. septimine2014-03-10 @ 02:22

    The most important thing is to teach kids how to learn. How to research, how to evaluate a set of data, or how to read an article and know whether it’s bunk or gold. Basically, I believe firmly in the Classical model, and that ideally by the time a student graduates from high school or college, he could read a few books on a subject and understand that subject. If that’s what you know, you could go in any direction. If what you know is C coding and spitwads, you’re sunk when C is obsolete. If what you know is Law, new laws sink you because the old precedents don’t work. If you know how to learn new things, I could take away everything you know and you’d eventually figure out how to survive because you know how to figure it out.

Got insight?