Don’t Let the Prize Divide You
Have you ever heard of a concept called test anxiety? Who am I kidding–you probably hear this term every day, right? Of all the myriad anxiety provoking phenomena in this dark and terrifying world, only exams are saddled with this unverified pseudo-diagnosis.
Then again, tests can be pretty scary.
Just recently, true test anxiety asserted itself in an ugly way with one of my students. This HS junior plugged away diligently all summer in preparation for the August SAT and September ACT, eventually reaching practice test scores above 90th percentile. Imagine how shocked we all were when his actual scores came back painfully close to the mean.
Luckily, the client didn’t ghost me. If you don’t want to be the scapegoat for bad outcomes, make sure you earn trust along the way. Nonetheless, I didn’t look forward to the debrief with his mother. In my experience, such a deep disparity between practice and actual scores stems from one of two causes: test anxiety or cheating on practice tests.
Obviously, I led with anxiety ;)
Wouldn’t you know it, this earnest and industrious athlete never revealed that he struggled in big moments in the past both in the classroom and on the field. After determining a proper path forward, we got him right back on that horse that threw him and galloping eagerly towards the October tests.
What is test anxiety? Sometimes, that corrosive response to stress in the moment occurs when the need to win eclipses all other thoughts. Thomas Merton, in his presentation of The Way of Chuang Tzu, captures the essence of both eustress and distress:
When an archer is shooting for nothing,
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle,
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold,
He goes blind
Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.
His skill has not changed, But the prize
Divides him. He cares,
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.
Disabuse your test takers of that desperate need to win. Encourage them to play their own games and revel in the skillful application of knowledge and strategy in the moment. Then, disabuse yourself of any similar predilection to value outcomes above diligent process–don’t let the prize divide you.
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