Here in this blog is one such example of an update that has been featured within the franchise intranet that all BIG TOM instructors get access to. This particular update is to raise awareness of the challenge involved in maximising driving test pass rates, without compromising on quality. The author of this update is Tom Ingram, Owner of the BIG TOM franchise.
Many people, including driving instructors, have always considered the taking of a driving test to have an element of luck associated with the end result. Will anything odd crop up and be distracting? Will the pupil be able to perform on the day? Which examiner are they going to get? What test route will they be asked to drive on?
Undoubtedly, the technical challenge does vary across specific test routes despite the best efforts of the DVSA to standardise it. It is of course true that some driving examiners have the ability to create an atmosphere on tests that is conducive to maximising the candidate’s driving ability, and some, unfortunately, do quite the opposite. And yes, it is in the nature of driving on public roads that all of us are within an environment occupied by humans, and humans are notoriously unpredictable at times with their behaviours. Much of this, is out of our hands. In the interests of our mental health, we should be only concentrating on the factors that we have control over.
But what about our pupil being on their A game on test day, is THAT under our control as driving instructors? One school of thought which is very often heard from parents is that their child just had a temporary blip on the driving test, “…probably just down to nerves…”. And sure enough, how easy it is to put driving errors down to nerves. But does that mean that these pupils will be driving poorly in the future when they are nervous driving to a job interview, or hospital appointment? It has been quite apparent since August 2021 that the DVSA do not tolerate the idea that driving test fails are excused by the presence of nerves. Driving instructors can lose their jobs if they do not address this issue. And I would like to expand on this subject with the following, to try to shed some light on what is actually going on in the minds of our pupils when they train with us and eventually go to test.
As we learn, information is being fed into our long-term memory, co-ordination of motor skills is being hardwired through repetition. Pupils are gaining experience, ideally of differing driving situations. Their brains will be recording the outcomes of these experiences. Their driving instructors will be feeding back technical details of what happens. The pupil may even be able to tap into their own thoughts and feelings about what happened and why.
We are all very used to the idea that how we feel at any given moment in a day, will have consequences on how we behave. Why should that be any different when it comes to us driving?
Let’s go back to riding a bike, learning piano, skiing, or playing sport. All of these activities involve practice in order to improve; rarely does anyone strike their first golf shot and land beautifully on the green for a birdie opportunity. If only life were like this. But it is true that some will have a natural aptitude for the activity, this happens; and equally true is that some will really struggle with the basics too. So the first thing to embrace is the variety of natural abilities that we are going to encounter as driving instructors. When you hear instructors complaining or moaning about certain pupils, all they are demonstrating is their lack of experience in working with a range of abilities. As they build their experiences, they observe more pupils at either end of the spectrum and it becomes less of a surprise should they encounter one. Putting it rather bluntly, if the expectation is that every pupil is going to perform exactly the same way to the same instructor, then yes, this is a sure path to negative stress.
This is in fact one of our challenges as instructors; we are attempting to develop this range of natural ability so that everyone eventually is driving around competently, and independently without much drama. The question is, how do we choose to go about achieving that goal?
Some instructors might choose to do the exact opposite of what we do here at BIG TOM. Rather than enable pupils to practice in a range of driving conditions, some instructors choose to only practice on test routes. And that obviously, is a conscious choice they make. They might inwardly justify the choice by saying the driving test pass is the starting point of continued learning for their pupil. “I’ll get you going here in your local town, we’ll get you passed your test, then you can continue to learn by going further afield.” But this approach fails pupils for one ever so important reason, and this reason is at the heart of why pupils fail driving tests. And I will come on to this reason in due course.
When anyone learns to ski or ride a bike or skate or swing a club/bat/racket they are intently concentrating. Their field of vision is often narrowed to enable them to be less distracted as well as focus. Very often this will involve looking only in the immediate space in front of them, or downwards. This is effortful. And as time passes, actions begin to automate, the eyes start to look around, they can start to talk while they do the activity, and they can even start thinking of entirely different things in their mind, while they still maintain the required ability to remain competent.
As instructors, we know this point about talking while doing because of the process we go through to do commentary driving. We need the driving ability in the permanent part of the brain, in order for the thinking in real-time part to allow us to describe what we are seeing and about to do.
You may have noticed that when you recognise the need to pay particular attention in some driving situations, you inevitably momentarily stop talking? Once you stop talking, access to and from the permanent part of the brain continues unrestricted, and normal service resumes [driving ability is not compromised]. Then, once that circumstance of increased intensity subsides, you go back to talking again.
Some of our pupils find the action of talking in the commentary drive, so off-putting that they literally seize and their driving ability is seriously compromised. They have not quite enough permanence in the long-term memory to accommodate this added distraction or the added task of speaking is sufficiently ‘disruptive’ to weaken the messages from the long-term memory. That cause of lack of driving ability is distinctly different to another type of distraction that is truly monumental in terms of the consequences to a pupil’s ability to drive. It is the following that is the game-changer.
If a pupil senses anything that could negatively impact their goal of passing a driving test, then that shockwave takes precedence over the brain’s normal working. Things can go one of two ways:
The distraction immediately surrounds the brain with thoughts of fear, resignation, defeat, loss of hope or confidence. In other words, as far as the pupil is concerned, it is game over. It is immediate, sudden and dramatic. Any aspect of good driving can vanish in the blink of an eye: position, judgement, decision making, assessment, planning. It can even disastrously affect the motor skills of changing gear, feet co-ordination, observations. Emotion has one the day.
However, if the distraction is not so intense, then it may be possible for the pupil to recover from the situation. The immediate, impulsive reaction of hopelessness, can be replaced with a more pragmatic, rational response. For instance, the pupil might be able to recall that they have in fact passed a mock test, they have not committed a ‘serious’ driving fault for 4 weeks, and their driving instructor has confirmed that they are capable of passing a test etc. These thoughts based on fact, dampen down the initial emotional response and driving ability is maintained.
So this begs the question, how can we manage this situation? Is it just bad luck if the distraction is perceived as “intense” by our pupils? It will come down to their beliefs that is for sure – their self-belief. The mere mention of a ‘driving test’ is enough to destabilise some pupils. Driving to a driving test centre, talking about examiners, doing a mock test – all of these can be sufficiently intense for some, that thoughts of dread, imposter syndrome, failing, and loss of pride/dignity just flood through the brain. The thing about this is that it is an entirely natural, human response to something that is perceived as a threat. So anything remotely linked to a driving test, has a direct, instant impact on rational thought and out of the window goes good driving.
The intensity may well be related to what is at stake, perhaps passing the driving test will genuinely make the pupil’s life so much easier/better that it has become too big a deal in their mind – they feel like it has got to the stage that they simply cannot bear the thought of not passing. But it may be related to beliefs rooted in pressure from family or friends. It could have a competitive angle, it may be the potential loss of pride or standing. Perhaps the consequences of failing, are just monumentally catastrophic regarding letting down people, a sense of wasting money, factoring in delays for new test bookings. It can be seen from the above how easy it is for a pupil to sense the prospect of failure and how that saps confidence from them. What a torturous dilemma to find oneself in. The prize is so great, and yet the prospect of failure looms large.
The answer to this lies in the emotional aspect of human behaviour. This is why none of us should be too harsh on our pupils. We know how it felt when we took our part 2 and part 3 qualifying tests. We need no reminding of how our internal beliefs created seeds of doubt in our ability. We need to find a means of building a wall that will protect us from destructive emotional thoughts. A wall, sufficiently robust and resilient to defend us from the most irrational of emotions. This could be called our “Wall of Self-Belief”. It might well be true that some people are naturally gifted with such a wall, perhaps by their genes, or upbringing, but for many, this wall needs building up, brick by brick and in time, it will become a solid defence. What might some of these bricks stand for in our “Wall of Self-Belief”?
If I fail, I fail, I will have tried my best, and that is all I can do.
My instructor tells me I’m good enough to pass, I feel the same.
My training has put me in a good place, I may well need to invest in some more.
I feel safe when I drive, I’m not causing any accidents.
I’m not telling my mates about the test, I don’t need any extra pressure.
This is a process I’m going through, passing is just one part of it.
I can still learn a great deal even if I was to fail the test.
It matters not where I go on test, I’ve driven to loads of places.
The examiner has got a job to do, there is nothing personal about the result.
I’m so proud of where I have got so far with my driving.
Errors are a fact of life when driving, I’m not a robot.
I can work with any feedback the examiner gives, just like I have with my instructor.
I really want to take my test, I feel like I can pass it.
I’ve got to get used to the prospect of failing, everyone fails at times, it’s just life.
Test day is like any other day of my driving – just a different person.
I’m happy to accept the result, pass or fail, it will be a great experience for me.
The role we play as instructors at BIG TOM regarding this “Wall of Self-Belief” is vital. We can either provide grout to help our pupils really cement these bricks of belief into their minds, or we can have such a negative impact, we are in effect taking individual bricks down! Helping our pupils to celebrate success along the way is key to motivation, self-belief and simply recognising that this is a series of challenges. We would do well to keep discussions about the driving test and any related subject to a minimum; pupils are sensitive to such talk and what may appear as an innocuous remark can loom large in their minds. Goal setting helps in this concept of a series of triumphs, all the time, skills are being developed. It is helping our pupils to ‘appreciate the moment’ that will reduce the development of destructive beliefs. Often pupils will have the end goal at the forefront of their thoughts when actually, they would do well to stay in the moment, and recognise the gradual yet factually truthful progression of continued improvement. Steady, recognisable, incremental improvements in driving ability will benefit pupils no end. As with most things in life, rarely are goals achieved without pain, disappointment or failure along the way. BIG TOM instructors do not have to join our pupils with this concept of ‘all or nothing’, not good enough vs good enough; improving is more of a mindset rather than simply seeing a defined goal to get to test asap.
With regards to how our pupils handle pressure, recognise progress, manage stress, are comfortable with setbacks, work with feedback, fear failure etc, I am reminded of a poem by Gerald Grow:
“There’s a kind of Uncertainty Principle
You can never really know yourself,
Because knowing yourself
But we can engage in conversations where we invite our pupils to express their views and beliefs on such matters; all of us benefit from talking through our thoughts, even when those thoughts are shrouded in destructive emotional turmoil. Even then, a good driving instructor will treat their pupil with dignity, respectfully listen to a rant in the knowledge of what it is, knowing the benefit to be had for having the rant, and positively move forward with facts rather than emotion when the time is right.