Stress Management is the key to success for students

Stress Management is the key to success for students

By Catherine Walker

Stress management is the key to success both in the classroom and on the sports field according to a new study by researchers at the University of Chicago.

A new paper published in the current issue of the journal Emotion explains how stress can cause performance failure in maths.  The team of researchers was led by Dr. Sian Beilock who is one of America’s leading experts on poor performance by otherwise talented people.

‘We found that cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, can either be tied to a student’s poor performance on a maths test or contribute to success, depending on the frame of mind of the student going into the test ‘ said Dr. Beilock.

Beilock specifically suggests that there is a critical connection between working memory, maths anxiety and salivary cortisol.

Maths anxiety is fear or apprehension when you just think about sitting a maths test.  Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland.  It is associated with stress-related changes in the body and is often referred to as the ‘stress hormone’.

Seventy three undergraduate students were tested by Beilock and her team to determine their working memory capacities and their level of maths anxiety.  A saliva sample was used to measure cortisol levels before and after a stressful maths exam.

Students with low working memories displayed little change in cortisol production or maths anxiety.  This is explained by experts by suggesting that students with lower working memory exert less mental effort to begin with.  Taking a stressful test did not drastically compromise their performance.

Depending on whether they were already anxious about maths, people with large working memories had rising cortisol levels.  This either led to a performance boost or a performance low.  Students with a large working memory are typically the most talented.

Students without a fear of maths experienced a cortisol increase during the test and this was accompanied by improved performance.  The researchers believe that this shows that for confident students, the body’s response to stress actually helped them to achieve greater success.  However, students with maths anxiety, increasing cortisol levels led to poorer performance.

Beilock said ‘Under stress, e have a variety of bodily reactions.  How we interpret these reactions predicts whether we will choke or thrive under pressure.’

‘If a student interprets their physiological response as a sign they are about to fail, they will. And, when taking a math test, students anxious about math are likely to do this. But the same physiological response can also be linked to success if a student’s outlook is positive,’ she added.

The research team found that students can change their outlooks by writing about their anxieties before an exam to ‘off-load’ their fears.  Simply by thinking about a time in the past when they have succeeded can also diminish fear.

Source: University of Chicago  


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