In their review article, Susanne Vogel and Lars Schwabe from the University of Hamburg, Germany, discuss the various ways stress can influence both learning and memory. Because classroom performance, exams, teachers and peers are all potential sources of stress for students, understanding how stress affects learning and memory should shape how education is delivered.
When we think of stress, we probably associate it with negative effects on performance. But the impact of stress on learning and memory is varied, with the relative timing of the stress being an important factor. For example, stress at the time of learning can be beneficial, but if the stress occurs 20-30 minutes prior, learning is hampered. This time-dependence arises because of the different physiological processes that make up the stress response.
Stress also differentially affects the different stages of memory: memory formation can be enhanced, depending on the timing, but recalling information becomes more difficult. Given the prevalence of tests and exams as indicators of student performance, stress-induced recall problems are particularly relevant to the classroom.
A frequent refrain throughout the article is that the memory-enhancing effects of stress are typically limited to the stressful event: threatening a student with punishment as they learn their multiplication tables won’t help them learn any better (and might even make it worse), but it will make them remember the threat of punishment.
As well as affecting how well we learn and recall information, stress can change the way that we learn and the type of information that we recall. Under stress, we switch from flexible and holistic learning to simple stimulus-response associations, perhaps analogous to obtaining deeper understanding of a topic compared to rote-learning facts. Similarly, recall under stress — such as during an exam — may tend towards rigid stimulus–response outcomes rather than allowing a student to think flexibly about their answer, even if their brains contain all the necessary knowledge.
The Bigger Picture
Stress is an unavoidable part of the education experience and has a number of effects on learning and memory. Although it can enhance memory formation, the evidence for this mostly concerns memories about the stressful event, and may not be applicable to classroom learning. Stress can also hinder recall and shift the brain’s mode of operation from flexible to rigid, suggesting that exams may not be the most accurate way of testing a student’s knowledge. Based on this, steps should be taken to minimise stress by altering assessment practices and managing student–teacher and student–student interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, ample opportunities for stress relief should be made available alongside a student’s formal education.