President Sian Beilock Leads the Conversation on Combatting Performance Anxiety

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college presidentpsychologySTEM Barnard’s eighth president, Sian Beilock, is a cognitive scientist by training and the author of two books on the mind-body connection (Choke and How the Body Knows Its Mind). She has focused much of her research efforts on discovering strategies and tools to improve individuals’ performance in high-stakes scenarios, such as a season-clinching basketball game or an important exam. A sampling of interviews and op-eds published since her arrival at Barnard provides valuable insights about her expertise.

In an interview with the American Psychological Association’s PsychIQ blog, President Beilock discussed her academic background and her tenure as executive vice provost at the University of Chicago where she created programs to help graduate students find careers and to better engage the university with its neighborhood communities. She plans to take the lessons she learned in those endeavors and apply them to the Barnard community, equipping students and alumnae alike with “the tools they need in their first job, second job, eighth job, and graduate school.” Some of those tools, gathered from her research, include cognitive skills that help dismantle the psychological barriers that deter success in key areas, such as test-taking, giving an important speech, and studying and entering STEM-related fields.

President Beilock was the keynote speaker at the Booth Women Connect Conference, hosted by the University of Chicago, in October. The Chicago Tribune covered her speech on improving performance and explained how the brain’s frontal cortex—responsible for integrated behavioral functions such as decision-making and problem solving—can malfunction when an individual experiences stress. This malfunction, she noted, is also responsible for the phenomenon of only concocting a perfect response or comeback well after the moment has passed. She offered the crowd of more than 1,200 professional women several simple solutions, which included taking short breaks and journaling, that are proven to improve future performance.

Much of President Beilock’s research has investigated the factors specifically affecting girls and STEM opportunities. In an opinion article for The Washington Post that ran on the first day of school in many districts, she shares with parents a new, research-based road map to develop “STEM-competent and -confident young women.” She responds to the summer’s infamous “Google memo,” where an engineer questioned the biological ability of women to succeed in tech fields, by calling his supporting research “shaky at best” and noting that societal reinforcement is a more proven factor in such matters. It is up to parents, then, to combat stereotypes and cognitive bias in order to help their children succeed in whatever paths they choose, and President Beilock lists simple suggestions—like focusing on efforts instead of results, or finding relevant and positive role models—to aid parents in search of a more equitable learning environment.

President Beilock also appears in a guest editorial for Education Update, addressing the uncertainties inherent to new beginnings. No matter one’s place in academia—student, faculty member, or Barnard’s eighth president—feelings of nervousness are natural, she writes, and “finding ways to manage those nerves is as important as recognizing that they exist.” She highlights Barnard’s

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