According to this weekend’s lead New York Times Magazine story, teachers would probably be doing students a favor by pitting them against each other more often.

The story, “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?“, surveys neuroscience research to try to figure out why top students sometimes freeze up on high-stakes exams. One answer, researchers say, is that people who usually have an optimal level of a neurotransmitter called dopamine go into overload in stressful settings, while others only reach the optimal level in those settings.

Simply put, one researcher told the Times, “The people who perform best in normal conditions may not be the same people who perform best under stress.” It’s a lesson educators know through experience, confirmed through cutting-edge neuroscience.

Critics of high-stakes tests tend to argue that when schools prepare students for tests by giving practice exams and emphasizing the exams’ importance, they stress students out even more.

But researchers say there’s value in test prep: The way to stop normally high-functioning students from going into overload on test day, they say, is to acclimate them to the situation — and the stress — ahead of time. The competitive classroom activities that help prepare those students to deal with test stress can also boost the classroom performance of the students who perform better under pressure, studies have shown.

The article argues for alternatives to test prep, and as someone who lived for Monday vocabulary competitions in high school, I am convinced:

Several scholars have concluded that what students need is more academic competition, but modeled on the kinds children enjoy. … In-class spelling bees. Science fairs. Chess teams. “The performance is highly motivating,” [one researcher] says.

Teachers and students, what effect does competition have on your students’ performance? And who wants to have their dopamine tested? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.