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Science: Competitive Pressures on Students Take Joy out of Learning

Under pressure to earn the high grades and test scores necessary for a coveted spot at a prestigious university, high school students are anxious and exhausted. They’re also missing out on academic experiences that encourage a desire to learn and pursue their passions—the real routes to success, according to Deborah Stipek, dean of the Stanford University School of Education.

Writing in an editorial in the 24 June issue of Science, Stipek said that the competitive pressures placed on young people in school are damaging many otherwise promising lives. In the effort to stand out on their college applications, students are taking multiple Advanced Placement classes, studying around the clock for high grades, and further overextending themselves trying to excel in extracurricular activities.

The results include debilitating anxiety, drug use, and a culture of cheating, as detailed in the documentary, Race to Nowhere, for which Stipek was interviewed.


Deborah Stipek | Courtesy and © Stanford News Service

It isn’t only the emotional toll on students that concerns Stipek, who has been doing research for 35 years on issues related to engaging students’ interest and motivation.


“Research on motivation makes it clear that focusing entirely on performance, whether grades or test scores, destroys whatever intrinsic interest the subject matter might have had,” she writes in the Editorial.

“We’ve drummed out that curiosity and energy and enthusiasm for learning,” she elaborated in a 21 June teleconference for journalists.

Advanced Placement courses are a good example of this problem, according to Stipek. Students only earn college credit if they score sufficiently high in the final exam. In many teachers’ and students’ minds, she said, these are basically test preparation courses, “which completely undermines the opportunity for students to go deeply into topics that they are really interested in.”

Stipek recalled her daughter’s response upon completing her French AP test. Rather than looking forward traveling or having a useful skill, she was relieved that she’d never have to speak French again.

On a societal level, this emphasis on grades and test scores has led to a cottage industry of tutoring, test preparation courses, and college application support that may contribute further to the achievement gap between students from affluent and low-income families. Even more broadly, such an emphasis “discourages innovative, critical, creative kinds of thinking, which is a problem for the future of the country,” Stipek said.

Solutions to the problem will need to come from many directions, involving teachers’ approaches in the classroom, revised homework policies, and testing schedules. School administrators should provide emotional and mental health resources, and extracurricular activities that foster students’ interests without the high stakes of grades and tests. Counselors should help students find colleges that match their interests and talents.

Families must also realize that there is more to being a happy successful person than attending a prestigious university.

“I really think that we’re doing a great disservice to young people by giving them the message that if they don’t get into one of those top colleges they’re at a loss for their future success and happiness,” Stipek said, “because most will not get into those colleges.”

When asked what she’d tell families nervous about job prospects for graduates who didn’t attend one of these top colleges, she said: “There’s just no evidence that you have to go to an elite college to get a good job. Most people don’t go to elite colleges. If they look around at the people they know, they’re going to find that the most successful people came from all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of college experiences. Some of the most innovative sort of superheroes in this country didn’t finish college.”

Kathy Wren

23 June 2011