High Stakes Performance By Liberal Arts College Students: Understanding and Coping with Anxiety

Eric Wiertelak (DeWitt Wallace Professor of Psychology, Macalester College) and Laura Nichols (Visiting Assistant Professor of Music, Macalester College).


November 11-12, 2011 | Macalester College, 1600 Grand Ave., St. Paul, MN

Students at liberal arts colleges engage in "high stakes" performance across a wide range of disciplines. As they present their research findings, undergo interviews for national scholarships, address community audiences, compete on the athletic field, perform in the concert hall, or audition for theatrical or dance productions, these students put themselves on the line.

In fact, most liberal arts colleges explicitly aim to cultivate the talent, mental capacities and gumption needed to excel in such settings. Facing judgment, disagreement and possible disappointment are integral to the leadership and civic engagement we expect of our students.

Although high stakes performance is pivotal, most liberal arts educators possess only odd lots of knowledge and advice about doing it well. What works for one individual fails another, and what works on one occasion, is ineffective in the next. While anxiety is a universal phenomenon, its operation in individuals is hard to predict. Accordingly, the measures to control or relieve anxiety are poorly understood. So it is that liberal arts educators are much better at designing and critiquing high stakes performances than they are at helping students to improve or excel at them.

At "High Stakes Performance and Anxiety," ACM educators will learn about performance anxiety among high potential college students.The Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) invites faculty from member institutions to participate in "High Stakes Performance by Liberal Arts College Students: Understanding and Coping with Anxiety, "a FaCE workshop to be held in St. Paul, MN on November 11-12, 2011. The workshop brings together faculty from disparate disciplines to build their understanding of performance anxiety, especially as it undermines the intellectual and creative performances of students. Of particular concern is the face-to-face encounter of presenters/ performers with their audiences.

The goals of the workshop are best served by broad participation. The workshop Steering Committee* will select participants representing a wide range of disciplines and career stages. Although everyone who wants to come must apply, conference funding allows for two participants from each campus to attend. While additional participants are welcome, they should plan to pay their own expenses.

The goals of the workshop are:

● To review basic brain functions and present new evidence about the brain's responses to anxiety in high stakes situations;

● To discuss student anxiety about live performance and testing, including gender and racial comparisons.

● To discuss the ways we support, mentor and advise students who suffer performance anxiety;

● To identify and foster best practices supporting students with symptoms of performance anxiety;

● To establish networks for sharing ideas and experiences across campuses and disciplines.

The workshop runs from Friday, November 11, 2011 through Saturday, November 12, 2011 at Macalester College, St. Paul, MN. It convenes with dinner and a keynote address by Dr. Sian Bielock, professor of psychology and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To (Free Press, 2010) on Friday, November 11.

The Saturday session includes several round table discussions about the role of gender and race in performance anxiety, test anxiety and live performance and anxiety. Moderators include Dr. Adrienne Christiansen (Macalester College), Dr. Elizabeth Ciner (Carleton College) and Helen Warren (Macalester College). The workshop disbands by 3pm. Accommodations, meals and travel expenses will be provided for up to two attendees chosen from each ACM participating school.

ACM Deans should submit the names of symposium participants to the project director, Laura Nichols (nichols@macalester.edu or 651-696-6386) by Friday, October 14, 2011. Please contact Dr. Nichols for further information.


* Members of the Steering Committee are Kathryn Ananda-Owens (St. Olaf College), J. Laurel Carrington, (St. Olaf College), Elizabeth Ciner, (Carleton College), Adrienne Christiansen, (Macalester College), Kenneth Hill, (Ripon College), Laura L. Nichols, (Macalester College), Kathy Privatt, (Lawrence University), Amy Sarno, (Ripon College) and Eric Wiertelak, (Macalester College).

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