Maximizing Academic Performance

When you were in grade school or high school, did any of your teachers spend any class time on improving your skills in maintaining concentration, memorizing, or dealing with the anxiety which normally occurs with tests and papers? Most students have never had any training in improving how they learn. The emphasis in academic training is typically on how much content you have learned, not on improving your ability to learn and improving your academic performance. The assumption is that your ability to concentrate and create is set and cannot be improved. Successful athletes, however, never make this assumption. It is widely acknowledged that one’s physical performance in a sport can be hampered or enhanced by one’s mental performance or attitude. That is, if an athlete anticipates that he or she will not do well in an event, that pessimistic attitude can harm the performance even if they are in the best physical condition compared to the other athletes. Successful athletes therefore take the time to prepare themselves mentally by having “dress rehearsals” and preparation rituals which get them ready to focus on doing their best in the sport.

In academics, however, not many realize that one’s mental attitude makes a difference in academic performance. Many students (and faculty) will not work on improving their productivity by working on the way that they think or work rather than focusing only on how much time they are putting into the work. For instance, many students engage in the fallacy of thinking that the quality of one’s work on tests and papers is a function only of amount of time and effort spent: the more time I put in, the better the grade, the more likely my work will be published, etc. But apply what we know from athletics. If a person said, “I am preparing for a long distance running event in the Olympics and I am doing this by running 18 hours a day”, we would say something like, “That’s stupid! Your body will fall apart way before the Olympics because you are not taking time to rest, eat well, and do other things your body will need to last in a marathon.”

Yet such thinking is common in the academic world. It is as if we believe the mind is not really connected to the body. The mind is thought to be in this ethereal realm and it does not really matter what I do to the body in order to get my mind to think more. It is a belief that the brain is not flesh and therefore you can cheat it of sleep and good food and you still expect that it should perform well.

The University Counseling Center conducts workshops for graduate and undergraduate students on maximizing academic performance by discussing techniques to improve the way students do their academic work, many of which sport psychology uses to train elite athletes. Here are a number of techniques which have been some of the favorites of past workshop participants:

Conditioning yourself to your workspace

Create a space or choose a place where you only do academic work. In this way, you create a dynamic in which the place is associated with work and so your productivity increases. If you procrastinate by socializing or surfing the net, leave that place so that it does not become associated with putting off work.

Be Process-Oriented, Not Outcome-Oriented: The bases are loaded, it’s the last inning of the game, and you are up to bat. If you start thinking about how much the outcome of the game depends on you, you will miss the ball. As they say, keep your eye on the ball; that is all you have control over. The same is true with papers and exams. Obsessing about what might happen to your GPA takes away from your focus on showing what you know in every question.

Dealing with academic setbacks

When you make a mistake in answering a question in class or do poorly on an exam, there is a temptation to tell friends how badly you did or to ruminate on the error. If you do this, you end up unconsciously rehearsing the error over and over. Instead, rehearse success. For example, ask yourself what was the problem or what skills you need to develop to do better next time. Instead of recounting the failure, say how you will do it successfully the next time. If you watch elite athletes when they are interviewed after making a mistake, they will usually avoid rehearsing what they did wrong and will focus on how one does it better.

Dealing with anxiety contagion

When you are surrounded by people who are preparing for exams or papers, such as during midterms or final exams, excessive anxiety can spread like wildfire in the dorm or the department. Students become anxious not because they need to be, but because everybody else is anxious. Ways to deal with this include: 1. Acknowledge the anxiety contagion and make fun of it as a way to distance yourself; 2. Give yourself ways to get perspective like studying some place else or going to the mall for a little while; 3. Clarify your priorities; do not let others contaminate you with their expectations or their less-than-productive study strategies.

Performance Enhancement Training

The University Counseling Center can offer a five-stage training module workshop aimed at enhancing performance. Although the information is drawn from the field of Sport Psychology, it is applicable to domains beyond a sport context. Participants learn techniques that develop arousal management, attentional focus, positive thinking, goal setting skills, and confidence building. The purpose of this training module is to add to the repertoire of skills already at the disposal of the participant. Moreover, the objective is to facilitate peak performance in the face of objective competitive events.

Call the University Counseling Center at 574-631-7336 to arrange a Performance Enhancement Training program for your team or group.