“Don’t watch me, it puts me off!”
You’ve probably heard that or said it yourself.
It won’t come as much of a surprise to learn that knowing you are being watched can change your behaviour.
Many people hate being watched doing a task and make mistakes because it puts them on edge. Lesson observations are a good example of that perhaps. Being observed stifles their creativity and naturalness and some can freeze and end up choking under pressure.
But according to some recent research, being watched can actually help us perform tasks better. Well, skilled tasks at least.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that the pressure of others actually makes people achieve more. Neuroscientists found that when people know they are being observed, parts of the brain associated with social awareness and reward invigorate a part of the brain that controls motor skills, improving their performance at skilled tasks.
Lead author Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, says that we might think having people watch us isn’t going to help but “An audience can serve as an extra bit of incentive.”
Chib and his co-authors devised an experiment in which 20 participants performed a task (a video game) and were paid a small amount of money contingent on how well they did. Those involved performed the task both in front of an audience of two and with no one watching and their brain activity was monitored with functional magnetic resonance imaging. They found that when people were watching, participants were an average of 5% better at the video game, sometimes 20% better and so “being watched by others serves to increase motivation and outcome values.”
Performing in front of an audience means that some of us up our game and do better than we would if no one was watching. So what about in the classroom? If we watch pupils perform certain tasks do they find it off-putting and crumble or do they rise to the occasion and enjoy showing off what they are capable of? We are an audience of one but do they play to the audience when they know we are watching?
Lesson observations undoubtedly change our behaviour and not always for the better but where they do, is the lesson observed better because of being watched? Are ‘normal’ lessons just bog-standard ‘nothing to write home about’ events?
When we know we are being watched in class then it can make a huge difference to how we perform but it matters who is doing the watching.
There is undoubtedly more pressure associated with certain personnel than others but what if the watching is done only by ourselves?
If we video ourselves when teaching and we are the only ones who get to watch the playback, would we perform any differently?
And what about being videoed when no one gets to see the lesson again. Does the physical presence of a video alter our behaviour even though it might not be recording but we think it is?
Perhaps the best policy is to teach and assume that someone is always watching you (which there are – 30 pupils normally).
As Chib et al (2018) note,
An improved understanding of the neurobiology of audience effects on performance will have applications in a myriad of environments in which individuals’ performance is observed by others, such as employees being observed their managers, students being evaluated by their teachers, and even patients being monitored by their physical therapists. By understanding how such social situations influence performance, we may design better social environments that can enhance behavioral performance and learning.