What Double Faults Remind Us About Learning

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 30 seconds

I love watching tennis, though I’ve never played tennis. What fascinates me the most is how often professional tennis players serve “faults”* or even “double faults”*.

I think it reminds us about some really important things about learning that we forget as educators, sometimes.

Basically, a professional tennis player has been playing tennis for YEARS and they know pretty well how to get the ball over the net and how to get it to land inside the designated lines, right? But when playing a high pressure game, they will serve faults, often. And double faults, sometimes. What’s happening here? I don’t play tennis, but my understanding is that a fault is either someone’s attempt to play a really good shot by making it very close to the lines, but they miscalculate slightly, and it lands slightly out; or they are nervous, so their body doesn’t work exactly as they had intended it to, and they can’t hit the ball the way they truly want to. A fault is often the result of someone trying to hit an ace (i.e. an untouched serve); or an unreturnable serve (that the other player touches but can’t get into play), in order to finish a point really quickly and brilliantly. A double fault is often the result again of either extreme nervousness, or an attempt to intimidate their rival by playing another really good second serve that is not easy to return.

So someone who knows how to do something correctly might do it badly because they’re either nervous, trying to finish quickly, or trying to perform brilliantly. This happens most often at high pressure points in a match – the very first game, at a break point, at a match point – all crucial points mentally for a player.

The analogy in education is that of high pressure or high stakes assessments. We assume that a good student will perform well on a timed exam. But someone might actually *know* the answers or be able to answer well, and on the day of an exam end up not doing well. Because of nervousness or anxiety. Or because they’re rushing because they’re not sure they’ll have enough time, or because time is indeed designed to be overly tight, so they make mistakes in the rush. Or, actually, sometimes, and I’ve seen this, trying too hard to impress or do something unique, and ending up losing sight of the basics. It’s worse in competitive educational situations, where we reward those who finish fastest/earliest, and people are so focused on doing better than others, rather than doing their personal best.

This seems obvious, right? And yet we continue to have exams in education and reward those who are faster, who manage their nerves and their time well, but not necessarily those who understand the material deeply, but who may not manage to show their learning under the pressure of an exam.

I remembered just now something. I’m a pretty confident speaker and I don’t get nervous much. But one day, the day I was getting my first US visa, when the embassy staff member asked me where I was born, I forgot where I was born. As in, I started to answer the wrong place then corrected myself. I bet I looked really suspicious. I remember another situation when I felt nervous and someone was asking me what my major was in university, and I started saying the wrong major, then corrected myself. Also looks very suspicious. Has something like this ever happened to you? You should hope that these moments pass, and a double fault is not the biggest mistake of your life, unless you do one at match point, it’s the worst thing you can do in a match… and so on an exam, it might not be the end all of your exam, but it could happen on the most important question on an exam, and making a mistake like in an exam where you can’t go back and correct it, something like that can make you spiral into self-doubt and affect your entire performance for the rest of the exam, right? If we continue doing exams (and I should hope we don’t, honestly), we should consider giving students some psychological training to prepare them mentlaly and emotionally, rather than assume they’ll manage to figure it out on their own.

Updated a couple of hours later: Other situations which might cause someone to fault or double fault could be physical fatigue (can happen in exams of course) or wind conditions (something analogous to some storm happening in your life?) or light hitting someone’s eye (imagine a person who dislikes bright light and it affects their focus during an exam, or the air conditioning is not working well and the room is hot, for example).

What do you think?

*(side note for people who don’t know rules of tennis and similar games, a player “serves” when they start the point by hitting the ball with their racket; a fault occurs if the ball lands outside particular designated lines, or hits the net and doesn’t go over it, or if their foot steps on the serving line; a double fault is when you do two of these in a row, and then you lose a point in the game).

Featured image of a tennis racket on top of a tennis ball on grass from Pixabay

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