Pressure of Testing: How Pressure Affects Our Working Memory Capacity

I remember the pressure I felt about taking the SATs. I was nervous, and I remember buying a practice book and deciding to take the SATs more than once. The idea that my postsecondary education depended on those scores created an unwanted amount of pressure. And in the end, I chose a university that didn’t care about SATs scores. But did you know pressure affects our working memory capacity? We will look into a specific study conducted on pressure induced settings and its effect on working memory capacity, and then discuss the possible solution. But firstly, what is working memory capacity?

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What is Working Memory Capacity?

According to Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind, working memory is used when there are multiple elements or ideas that need to be combined or connected. People have different working memory capacities, where some are able to hold more elements than others. Those who have higher working memory capacities have an advantage when they need to perform tasks that involve memory, such as tests with reasoning or reading comprehension.

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There is a way to measure the working memory capacity, which modern researchers use. The OSPAN (operation span) is a task designed to measure working memory when it is “working.” The task involves subjects solving simple math problems, while remembering a series of letters, which they will recall in the end.

Pressure Created Settings and its Effect on Working Capacities

The Psychological Science reported a study conducted by Sian L. Beilock and Thomas H. Carr, in which they examined the relationship between pressure induced performance in math and individual working capacities. It is thought that in cognitively based academic classes such as math, pressure affects the working memory capacity. Students are placed in high pressure situations especially in academic situations. It becomes difficult for them to succeed in testing. Beilock and Carr used the OSPAN test and the *RSPAN (reading span) on two groups of participants, LWM (low working memory capacity) and HWM (high working memory capacity). The tests were done on a computer and the computer determined the score based on accuracy and reaction time.

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The results concluded that there is a relationship between pressure induced performance and working memory capacities. HWMs were supposed to be successful in their performance of difficult problems, which involves high-working memory demands. However, when pressure consumed their working memory they were at a disadvantage. They rely on strategies that load working memory. If under normal conditions HWMs would perform better than LWMs because they have more resources. However, when pressure is created, they are more susceptible to failure because it denies their capacity they rely on to perform superior tasks. LWMs did poorly on high-demand problems when pressure was absent.

How Does Working Memory Capacities Relate to the SATs?

Settings like the SAT examinations, are pressure induced. Students are taught to do well on them in order to get into a good college. When this pressure is added, a person who has a high working memory capacity are at a disadvantage. The pressure consumes their working memory and they are unable to use the tools needed for the assessment. Standardized tests should be reevaluated. Essentially, what are the SATs measuring?

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Since the pressure of the SATs are conflicting with their working memory, it reflects on their performance, and ultimately is not measuring intelligence, but how well a student can work under pressure. Tasks such as the OPSAN, become important. It can be used to further understand pressure on working memory capacities. 

Standardized Testing Should Become Individualized

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With this information, test makers can create exams that are not pressure-induced. The individual’s intelligence should be tested, and not their ability to take a test. Students will be able to do better on their tests depending on their performance ability in high-pressured situations. Test makers should consider the abilities of those with lower working memory capacities, who perform better when tasks are pressure induced. Test makers should create individualized tests, and consider the working memory of all individuals.

How well do you work under pressure?

*The RSPAN involves reading a series of sentences aloud, determine if they make sense and remember a string of letters along the way and write them down


Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind

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  1. My opinion evolves on a daily basis. For now, I will offer my current viewpoint.
    Dealing with any human relationship is challenging. Nearly everybody wants their own way regardless if they are raised with a silver spoon in their mouth or are subject to forms of neglect. For me, I have and know a higher purpose that relationships will be a distraction for me. Actually I will elaborate on that. I have found that most people have saboteur tendencies and that there are some people who are intelligent enough that they do not experience those tendencies and they transcend the banal.. Bottom line– I trust myself; everyone else, not so much. Plus I have much to work on and improve in my life. I am definitely too busy for a relationship.

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