The Big Idea
How Not to Choke When It Counts
You — or your students — prepared diligently, then crumbled. Why? And how can you make sure it doesn’t happen again?

In her article Helping Good Students Do Better on the SAT, Hannah Boyd quotes Richard Bavaria, Ph.D., who notes, “Smart, well-prepared kids can test badly for many reasons.” Bavaria, who is Senior Vice-President for Education Outreach at Sylvan Learning Center, explains, “The most common reason is stress. Stress can rob a student of confidence and even cause forgetfulness — the worst thing when you’re taking an important test.” See the article for stress-busting tips which work for the SAT and other pressure-cooker situations.

Sian L. Beilock, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, says we may freeze because “pressure situations can fundamentally alter the way individuals think about and exercise their skills.” In the University of Chicago Magazine article “Choking Hazards,” Beilock explains that “pressure situations” can throw off “even the most talented individuals.” Her good news: “Those who prepare by mimicking real-life situations can bypass pressure’s pitfalls. Whether timed practice tests or full-length football scrimmages, such simulations reduce the novelty of stressful events and curtail choking.”

In the Scientific American article “How to Avoid Choking under Pressure,” Elizabeth Svoboda cites Trinity University psychologist Harry Wallace who advocates developing effective strategies which “imbue performers with the assurance that they can deal with any eventuality. This mind-set proves helpful even (and perhaps especially) when something goes wrong.”

Wei-Hsuan Lin looks at “how mere mortals can obtain nerves of steel” in Psychology Today‘s “Mind Your Body: Lost in Thought.” Emphasizing that “Pressure is inevitable, but choking is not,” the article’s practical tips to help athletes avoid the big choke also have broad application. “Practice under Pressure: Play matches with friends, but with consequences (e.g., the loser has to buy dinner). Keep it Real: Train in conditions that match the event. Wear a real jersey or find an audience. See the Big Picture: Focus on global cue words, like smooth, tempo, and rhythm instead of details that might make you self-focus.”

Write Better
Smooth Transitions
Providing transitions which connect your ideas, says Capital Community College Foundation, begins with your attitude. “You must never assume that your readers know what you know… You might be able to leap from one side of the stream to the other; believe that your readers need some stepping stones and be sure to place them in readily accessible and visible spots.”

CCC Foundation provides valuable information on the stones to use and where to place them in Coherence: Transitions Between Ideas.

“There are four basic mechanical considerations in providing transitions between ideas: using transitional expressions, repeating key words and phrases, using pronoun reference, and using parallel form,” they explain and offer these details about each:

Using Transitional Tags
Transitional tags run the gamut from the most simple — the little conjunctions: and, but, nor, for, yet, or, (and sometimes) so — to more complex signals that ideas are somehow connected — the conjunctive adverbs and transitional expressions such as however, moreover, nevertheless, on the other hand.
The use of the little conjunctions — especially and and but — comes naturally for most writers. However, the question whether one can begin a sentence with a small conjunction often arises. Isn’t the conjunction at the beginning of the sentence a sign that the sentence should have been connected to the prior sentence? Well, sometimes, yes. But often the initial conjunction calls attention to the sentence in an effective way, and that’s just what you want. Over-used, beginning a sentence with a conjunction can be distracting, but the device can add a refreshing dash to a sentence and speed the narrative flow of your text.

Repetition of Key Words and Phrases
The ability to connect ideas by means of repetition of key words and phrases sometimes meets a natural resistance based on the fear of being repetitive. We’ve been trained to loathe redundancy. Now we must learn that catching a word or phrase that’s important to a reader’s comprehension of a piece and replaying that word or phrase creates a musical motif in that reader’s head. Unless it is overworked and obtrusive, repetition lends itself to a sense of coherence (or at least to the illusion of coherence).

Pronoun Reference
Pronouns quite naturally connect ideas because pronouns almost always refer the reader to something earlier in the text. I cannot say “This is true because . . .” without causing the reader to consider what “this” could mean. Thus, the pronoun causes the reader to sum up, quickly and subconsciously, what was said before (what this is) before going on to the because part of my reasoning.

Music in prose is often the result of parallelism, the deliberate repetition of larger structures of phrases, even clauses and whole sentences.

To find more information from CCC Foundation on parallelism, a chart of transitional devices, and examples of “Coherence Devises in Action,” click here.

Search Smart
Making Contact with Experts
In last month’s Q&A! search article, we explored Tara Calishain’s recommendations for finding experts online. Here we present her “five rules for contacting an expert.”

Calishain, whose advice we shared in “Strike Expert Gold” (Q&A! Volume 4 – Issue #17), and who is the author of Web Search Garage (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Professional Technical Reference, 2005), 90, offers “The Commandments for the Questioner.”

  1. Thou shalt be polite — It should go without saying but often doesn’t. Don’t demand; request… E-mail them the contact information they request. Be sure to use their title if they’re a professor, doctor, etc. And if they say on their Web site that they can’t answer e-mailed questions, don’t ask! Sometimes folks are just really busy.
  2. Thou shalt make it clear what you want — You should be polite, but you don’t have to be obscure. If you’re looking for a particular fact, say so… If you’re trying to get more information on a particular point, describe it clearly.
  3. Thou shalt give a reasonable amount of time for an answer — Part of courtesy is giving the expert plenty of time to answer your question. Try to give them three or four days. Sometimes it might take longer. Don’t email them and say you have to have an answer in an hour… On the other hand, if you have a deadline say so, so the expert knows you need to hear back from them within a certain time frame.
  4. Thou shalt not ask the expert to do thy homework — If you write to an expert on Shakespeare with a request like, “Please send me 500 words on the underlying themes in Romeo and Juliet,” don’t be surprised if you get no response… I’ve found in my research that an expert is a lot more willing to help if you describe what you’ve done already, where you’ve tried to get the answer, and why you’re contacting them.
  5. Thou shalt not get in a twist if the expert does not answer — Sometimes people get busy, or tired, or their computer breaks, or they can’t get their e-mail, or they get carpal tunnel syndrome. Sometimes you won’t get an answer. Don’t take it personally!… If you want to, send one follow-up e-mail — sometimes e-mail gets caught in a spam filter or otherwise undelivered — but then leave it alone.

“If you follow these rules,” says Calishain, “I’d say there’s a better than even chance that your mail will get answered.”