Why do pupils choke on test?

Why do pupils choke on test?




Motor skills generally refer to physical movements or tasks. Driving will be a series of tasks demonstrating skill in its performance. Smooth braking etc. 


A definition of skill might be the: Maximum certainty of a desired result, with the minimum effort in the optimal time to achieve that result.

For example stopping at a red light. We know we must stop and the skilled driver will do so safely, smoothly and in good time. The unskilled driver may race up to it and brake very harshly. The skilled driver has the possibility of flowing through without stopping. The unskilled driver has not achieved anything and is a danger to himself and others.


Tasks may have 3 main characteristics.


The first of these is how they are organised. Discrete, serial and continuous. Discrete skills are one off actions such as applying the Handbrake properly. Serial ones are a series of discrete actions such as gear changing. Clutch down, off gas, select gear and so forth. Continuous are flowing movements such as steering through traffic.


The second way of classifying skills is whether they are cognitive or motor skills. Our ability to perform a particular task like gear changing will involve our motor skills. When to perform the gear change will involve our cognitive skills.


The third way is if our skills can be viewed as open or closed. A closed skill being performed in a predictable environment. This might be applying the Handbrake when stopped at the lights. An open skill requires adaptation to the environment around you. This might be steering down a busy road.


A skill may move from a closed one to an open one. An example of this might be gear changing for a novice. It would start off as a closed skill being performed in a very predictable environment such as an empty car park or empty stretch of road. As our student becomes more proficient we give them more situations in which to practice. They then have to choose the right gear for the situation around them.

In terms of practicing our skills we move from Motor Performance to Motor Learning. In driving terms the DVSA will give this levels 1-5. Number 1 being when the skill is introduced leading to No. 5 when the skill can be done completely independently. So our learners path to driving safely involves moving from Motor Performance (levels 1-4). Which when practiced enough becomes embedded as Motor Learning (level 5). 


This process of moving from Motor Performance to Motor Learning is one of moving from explicit actions to implicit actions. Explicit which are the ones you must think about. To implicit ones which have become automated. In driving test terms if they are still having to think about how to drive rather than where to drive. This is Motor Performance and they are not ready to pass.


Motor Learning is driving safely with some confidence. That confidence being made up of skill, judgement and experience. At this point you have a person ready to pass a driving test. 


This process for driving becomes a situational one where we have to consider the person, the task and the environment in which it all takes place. To make all this a bit easier it has been formalised in the GDE.


The Goals for Driver Education

Knowledge and SkillRiskSelf Assessment
SelfAttitudeWhy are we the way we areDo we choose wisely
PurposeWhere we are goingWhat makes us dangerousWhy could we be dangerous
TrafficHow we interact with other road usersAre we safe on the roadDo we have near misses
CarControlling our carMaintaining our carDo we have breakdowns


If you look at the levels in the Goals for Driver Education we start at the bottom with Vehicle Control which will be mainly motor skills as we move along and upwards it becomes more and more cognitive. It follows that a thinking driver is a safer driver.


Choking reason number 1. 


This is when we move from implicit skills to explicit ones. Apparently tennis players can unsettle their opponents by commenting on their opponents serve.They make them move from implicit skills to explicit one. Or not driving the way you have been driving.  Football managers tell the players to go out and enjoy themselves. They try to remove the performance pressure. 

Perception and Decisions:


We can’t exercise a driving skill until we are aware and have made a decision.  In simple terms:




The processing element will be made up of 3 things:


Stimulus Identification
SeeingRed brake light 
FeelingCar sluggish


Response Selection
Seeing Should I brake or steer round
Hearing What’s the horn telling me
FeelingIs it in the right gear


Response Programming
SeeingBrake because the car in front is also braking
HearingNothing because the horn was someone tooting his mate
FeelingSelect the right gear


Note that for driving we use 3 senses here. Looking, hearing and feeling.


As driving instructors we have this all sorted out and it’s called LADA (Look Assess Decide Act). The input is what is happening in front of you. The output is the result of your decisions. For example, a red traffic light start braking.


How quickly you react is your Reaction Time. The more choice you have the slower the RT. This is known as Hick’s Law. You will see this as your pupil struggles in busy traffic. 


However the more practice you have and experience of knowing what to look for the shorter the RT. What you are doing is filtering information based on what you see as risk. In short anticipation.


Choking reason number 2. 


Your pupil has not reacted quickly enough to a situation. More practice looking. In real life they may have multiple hazards to deal with. This is the confidence bit. Skill, judgement and experience.


Arousal and Anxiety


Your ability as a driver to process or anticipate is affected by Arousal  and Anxiety. Arousal is more physical and anxiety is more mental. Both of these levels will be elevated both by the process of learning to drive and the test itself. 


As arousal levels increase a number of things happen: Anxiety levels increase but also something called Perceptual Narrowing occurs. This is sometimes called tunnel vision. 


Choking reason number 3. 

Your pupil is only seeing what is happening in front. The field of vision has narrowed and the bus emerging from the side road has disappeared from view. Their arousal state is too high and the anxiety levels are manageable.


If your pupil is prone to anxiety as their arousal levels rise so will their anxiety levels.


Choking reason number 4. 

An effect of increased anxiety is more attention paid to the peripheral vision at the expense of our central vision. When we were cavemen,  ambushes would probably have been more effective than head on attack.  I guess both tigers and examiners are only seen in the corner of your pupils eye. 


Why your pupils’ performance dips in lessons.


Something called Cue-Utilisation Theory can explain a dips in performance during low arousal.  It says  we have a wide field of view with lots of clues. So because of the increased number of clues we miss some and pick on others that are not needed. There is a need to prioritise and they haven’t got it quite yet.This is the dip in your pupils performance as they get better and relax. 


How can we use this?


When learning, get to know your pupil. They will probably tell you if they are anxious. It will become apparent anyway. Besides the physical control of the car. Lots of looking and knowing what to look for. Practice in looking far ahead. This will create time so they can deal with things.


Encourage their friends and family to come out on lessons. Certainly for the driving test they will have a strange pair of eyes looking and judging them. Try to get them used to other people in the car. 


For the test itself that will need to be managed. Most importantly, can they drive safely with confidence. Are you happy they could safely drive your car on their own with your children in the back.


Tell them not to focus too much on the test. Remember the football manager saying go out and enjoy. Try to take some of the pressure off.

Ask them what they will do differently. If they answer with something. Challenge them as to why?. Their normal driving should already be good enough. They should not change it.


Practicing the observation and anticipation skills. As the traffic levels keep building. It becomes more of a mental game. Make sure they are prepared. Physically by car control and routines. Mentally by ensuring good observation and understanding of what’s going on around them. Emotionally by managing their expectations and knowing what their buttons are. In short client centered learning!



Motor Learning and Performance

A Situational-Based Learning Approach

4th Edition

Richard A. Schmidt & Craig A. Wrisberg