We all have been students some time ago. We remember the stress we used to feel some minutes before starting an exam and the increasing pressure when the examinations were important for our final grade or to achieve a specific goal such as university entrance exams or finish some educational stage. Then, after the exam or the grade publication, the most listened sentence among classmates were: “I don’t understand why I’ve made those mistakes; I had solved those exercises at home successfully!”. Does it sound familiar to you? So, psychologists called that choke under pressure (Baumeister, 1984; Beilock, 2004).
Choke under pressure is defined as “performance decrements under circumstances that increase the importance of good or improved performance” (Baumeister, 1984, page 610). Another more recent definition is “poor performance that occurs in response to the perceived stress of a situation” (Beilock, 2004, page 7). This describes perfectly what I mention in the previous paragraph. For instance, when students are doing mathematical or physics exercises at home, they do not have any punishment or negative outcome in case of making a mistake, so they are working in a more relax and less stressed environment. However, the same mistake might have some negative consequences when students sit an exam: lower grade. The key point here is that this lower grade might have worsen consequences as the importance of the performance in that specific examination arises: fail the exam, fail the course, not achieve a goal, not get accepted in the most desired university, not get a civil servant position,…. For instance, at university or school, it is not the same to get a 2 (out of 10) in a 10-per-cent-midterm than a 2 in a 60-per-cent final exam. Or even a more important situation, when taking university entrance exams or public exams to work as a civil servant. The performance in such examinations might strongly determine future outcomes, especially labour outcomes. Therefore, as the importance of a good performance increases, i.e. the stakes at hand increases, the pressure felt by students increases as well.
Being introduced the pressure attached to sitting an exam, the next part is to understand why this happens. This is, why do we perform worse when we precisely need the best performance from us? Beilock (2004) explains with plain text which are the psychological mechanisms behind this phenomenon in different settings such as student performance, playing competitve sports or at workplace. The stress felt while we are preforming a task, such as exam, play sport or playing an instrument, wastes resources and attention from our brain. For example, in an exam situation in which you are focus on what they ask for and what to answer, there are these worrying thoughts about the need of a good performance and the potential consequences of failing. This is a waste of attention and concentration on another business, instead of focus all of them on the exam at hand. Therefore, not having all the resources on the exam increases the probability of making some mistake or not to be able to answer a question due to a distraction of your mind.
In a more formal way, in our brain there is a part called prefrontal cortex where lies the working memory. This is the capacity of “saving” short chunks of information in the short-term. For instance, when you are performing a subtraction and you are holding a number in your memory. Hence, when sitting an exam, we use the working memory at their full potential. However, at the same time, all these worrying and stressful thoughts are processed through this memory. Therefore, there is less working memory to dedicate to the exam, less brain power and more chances to make mistakes. For that reason, it is really common that as the higher is the importance of an exam, the higher is the probability of choke under pressure.
Here I attach a TEDtalk by Sian Leah Beilock talking about this topic:
Baumeister, R. F. (1984). Choking under pressure: Self-consciousness and paradoxical effects of incentives on skillful performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(3), 610–620. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1680
Beilock, S. (2011). Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Simon and Schuster.