The impact of stressful events on learning
Stressful events are commonly associated with educational settings, predominantly because of our early experiences with exam stress. You’re probably remembering that now and recalling an all too familiar feeling but the truth is;
Stress is good for learning
The key factor influencing the impact of stress on the learning cycle is timing. Stress at the right time enhances memory. Stress at the wrong times impairs memory and retrieval.
First a summary of the learning cycle:
Encoding is the first step in creating a memory, simply using your senses to perceive something. Those senses are then combined in the hippocampus into a single experience that is stored in your short-term or long-term memory.
Stress before encoding and during learning heightens the experience, stimulating more of our senses and releasing cortisol into the blood which naturally improves our performance and boosting memory formation. Put simply; stress makes learning more memorable.
Consolidation is the stage of learning where the experiences are reinforced through remembering. This can be done after the lesson in a review or revision and is certainly part and parcel with sleep, where your brain processes the experience and attempts to clarify and reference it.
When stress precedes consolidation it serves as a stronger reminder and helps the brain reference the experience more easily. It also makes it more likely that the experience will be recalled clearly during consolidation. The result is an experience that will be easier to retrieve in the future.
Retrieval is the recollection of experiences that have been consolidated. It is central to effective learning as both encoding and consolidation are enhanced if retrieval practices are part of the learning at that stage.
Stress before retrieval has a detrimental effect on learning as it impairs the recollection of that information while your body focusses on the possible fight or flight situation it’s in. If you need to retrieve experiences for an exam it’s much better to be relaxed.
Updating is adding new experiences to those we’re already able to recall to enhance our understanding of them. Building one experience on top of another like a tower is essential if we are to become wiser and more knowledgeable on a particular subject.
Updating is similar to encoding but with one critical difference, it requires some retrieval. As a result, stress before updating impairs memory and makes updating less effective.
Stress is just one of the ways that neuroscience can help your brain to learn. Consider when and how to apply stress to your students during their learning journey with you. Something simple like having people stand instead of sit. Remember that much of the learning occurs outside the classroom and search for ways to apply stress before consolidation. For example, an email reminder in the evening asking a question about the day.
Above all it’s important to strike a balance. Too much stress and the fight or flight response hinders performance, none at all and the result is the same. Students should be stressed, just not too stressed.