We typically associate stress with the challenges of adult life: work responsibilities, family needs, and other conflicting or overlapping commitments that demand both attention and solutions. It is safe to say that anyone facing numerous obligations and the stress to meet them can find the effort exhausting. Students are not exempt from stress. They face all forms of stress in their academic careers. High pressure testing environments and increasingly formalized teaching structures are just a couple possible contributors, as well as the increasing social stresses that students face as they mature and navigate more complex social dynamics. This raises the question as to how stress affects students’ overall academic performance and retention of information. Scientific neuroimaging studies have shown that stress physically blocks students’ receptivity of information. Judy Willis, MD, writes in Edutopia, “students' comfort level has critical impact on information transmission and storage in the brain.”
There is a science behind why the brain does not absorb information under stress. According to Willis, when the amygdala is overstimulated by negative stress, new information cannot physically pass into the areas of the brain responsible for memory. Willis calls this phenomenon the “affective filter.” Additional neuroimaging studies have shown that the limbic system, along with chemical transmitters in the brain, more effectively retains information when students have greater levels of comfort in their learning environment.
But what makes for a comfortable learning environment? Willis says “brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are motivating and engaging. Positive motivation impacts brain metabolism, conduction of nerve impulses through the memory areas, and the release of neurotransmitters that increase executive function and attention.” The more we do to facilitate a positive and engaging environment for students, the more they will excel academically.
Willis suggests that relevant lessons that encourage students to stake a claim in what they are learning keep students engaged. An interactive learning environment promotes active student participation. The Socratic Method, or the positive back and forth exchange between teacher and student, incentivizes students to develop better study and preparation habits. Teaching strategies that rely on interactive and cooperative activities help students feel as if they are participating in their education, rather than serving as a passive recipient or storage device for information. Today’s rigorous education standards often mandate a large quantity of knowledge be delivered in a limited amount of time. The urgency of which can be stressful for both the teacher and the student.
Students who participate in interactive lessons are more likely to stay engaged, speak their minds, and build confidence. All of which reinforce learning to create a solid knowledge base. Willis writes, “When teachers use strategies to reduce stress and build a positive emotional environment, students gain emotional resilience and learn more efficiently and at higher levels of cognition.” The result of such strategies makes for happier, healthier students whose minds are fertile for planting seeds of knowledge.