Understanding Underperformance and Academic Performance States

Performance states are the physical, psychological, technical, and tactical elements that impact one’s performance. In sports, athletes rely on a combination of elements to perform at their most ideal state when training and competing. Along with maintaining consistent physical ability, athletes also need to develop healthy habits around nutrition and sleep, which can go a long way for peak performance during a competition. In addition, performance tracking pre-game preparation routines can also contribute to one’s athletic prowess on the field. The former provides what Dr. Bruce Pinel, mental trainer at the Canadian Sport Centre Pacific, calls the “4C Success” – control, consistency, confidence, and composure. The latter allows athletes to identify patterns and factors that may have enhanced or detracted from their athletic performance.

Developing ideal performance states is not limited to only the playing field. In the classroom, students encounter various challenges that may negatively impact their academic performances. These challenges may induce responses that threaten their sense of control or understanding of the coursework, composure during high-stakes moments such as test-taking, impact consistent performance outputs, and lower their confidence and self-esteem. Like athletes, students need to develop and maintain their academic prowess throughout their learning experiences and careers.

Under-Performance and Performance States

Three performance states impact students’ ability to perform at their “ideal state” for optimal learning:

  • Threat
  • Stress
  • Rest

The first performance state is threat. Threat is the experience of contending with psychological ambiguity. “When one perceives a threat, there is a series of bio-responses that the amygdala releases, which causes one to begin to operate on autopilot against it quickly,” states Dr. Reshma Gouravajhala, Ph.D., a research scientist at WGU Academy. “The amygdala sort of hijacks everything. It takes over how one would typically want to respond to a situation by using another part of the brain called the frontal lobe, which is responsible for higher functions like rational thinking, reacting with empathy, or using emotional intelligence.” In other words, operating on autopilot might mean life or death in some situations. However, in a non-threatening one, it can make it difficult for one to respond more rationally.

As critical as the amygdala is, it is not as environmentally intuitive as humans need it to be. It often fails at determining the difference between a physical threat and a non-physical one.

“The amygdala is like a honing beacon. It is constantly searching one’s environment for threats,” states Chelsea Barnett, M.A., M.S., Director, Program and Product Innovation at WGU Academy. “Unfortunately, it really cannot tell the difference between a cougar charging one down a trail, being cut off in traffic, having one’s work criticized in front of their team, or anticipating an upcoming math test.

“When we work with our students to understand some of their responses, we realize that they are experiencing the same thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations they might have when receiving a low grade on an exam as they would when encountering a physical threat.” This level of emotional recognition can be vital to a student’s overall academic performance.

The second performance state is stress. “We are living in a time right now of dramatically increased economic uncertainty, health anxiety, social and racial unrest,” continues Barnett. “Our world today primes our students [to be in] a constant state of stress. As a result, more of our students are coming into our classrooms in a constant state of stress. According to Barnett, when students are in a heightened state of stress, they are more likely to exercise threat or stress responses when encountering academic challenges. So what does this mean for their learning?

“Students ultimately will disengage with their learning. They are going to have difficulty engaging with the curriculum in meaningful ways. Creating beautiful courses with the latest learning science and design is not going to help them overcome these hurdles.” Instead, Barnett believes that a more intentional approach is more impactful to help students develop a mindset that helps them identify the physiological and psychological responses that can cause setbacks in their learning. These approaches address mental and performance-based concerns and help students develop what she and her team call “adaptive mindsets.”

“When we are functioning in stress response, we are not likely functioning in [a learning mindset],” states Barnett. WGU Academy’s break-through program, Program for Academic and Career Advancement (PACA), is designed to facilitate the development of thriving, adaptive mindsets that boost student performance, college readiness, and success within the workplace. With the support of a personal professional coach, students develop their confidence, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence. In addition, they cultivate some of today’s in-demand soft skills, learn how to set and achieve goals effectively and counter the impacts of fear-based learning.

The final performance state is rest. We do not often think of rest as a state of danger or underperformance. Categorically, rest is not like the other two states of underperformance. It has nothing to do with moments of high stakes or high stress, moments of pressure where students attempt to navigate their way out from self-doubt, self-criticism, and threat.

“Rest is a component of time that is spent trying to stay engaged, motivated, and focused,” states Dr. Omid Fotuhi, Director of Learning Innovation at WGU Labs. “Many students come to me and say, ‘I have a really hard time staying focused when I am supposed to be studying at home, or I have a really hard time staying motivated to complete my degree.’ So, there are these significant moments where people have to find the motivation, self-regulation, and focus on doing the work needed for mastery.”

Rest state is tricky. If left unaware of the signs or triggers of lack of motivation or disinterest, students will move by the momentum of their disinterest and lack of motivation instead of recognizing that they are empowered to choose not to be distracted. Rest is also challenging because of how one must manage it in terms of its representation of time and its relation to high-stakes moments and threats like preparation for an upcoming exam or one’s confidence on understanding or lack of course materials.

Dr. Fotuhi recommends that the best way to counter the impact of rest is to trick oneself into thinking that they are controlling their environment, ergo, controlling the perception of threat. He calls this “situation selection”: “If a student has a hard time staying focused, they should try sitting in the front of the class instead of the back where their attention will be easily diverted and distracted by everything.” The student is actively attempting to regulate or control their motivation and minimize the pressure of an anticipated threat such as an upcoming exam or paper.

Encouraging a thriving mindset empowers students to reflect and retrain themselves to approach their learning with resilient endurance—understanding how these three performance states can ultimately help educators and students reach academic success.

“If we can create an environment where students can connect with their learning [that aligns with] their values and motivations, builds empathy, and encourages growth, then they, too, can be a successful learner,” states Dr. Gouravajhala. When students feel connected to their environments, their sense of belonging increases. A sense of belonging can also help students be more aware of thoughts and behavior patterns that might be holding them back. “We believe that when students have this foundation of support for their learning, they can then adopt the thriving mindset they need to be the successful learner they have the potential to become.”


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