Stress and How It Shuts Down Learning
We often hear that stress inhibits learning, but until recently it was not always clear why this was so. Neuroscience research has started to demonstrate what happens to the brain in the presence of stress. Judy Willis, using research from L.M. Shin (2005) described it this way:
“Unless the perception of threat is reduced, the brain persists in doing its primary job – protecting the student or animal from harm. The neural activity on scans during fear, sadness, or anger is evident in the lower brain, and the reflective, cognitive brain does not receive the sensory input not relative to survival even though that is the content of the day’s lesson (Shin, 2005). “
In other words, from a neuroscience perspective, reducing the perception of threat is a prerequisite to learning since information cannot reach the cognitive brain unless this happens. Willis also makes the point (as mentioned on the Feedback page) that, “Only the students who risk making mistakes benefit from the nucleus accumbens and dopamine pleasure fluctuations.” Students do not take risks (generally) in highly stressful environments where they perceive threat.
One stress response is engaging in rote behaviors - in other words, we stop thinking and rely on previous patterns, even if they are not an appropriate response to the new stimulus. Obviously, this is the exact opposite of what we are looking for in the classroom.
So what should teachers and parents do about this? First, keep it in mind as you design any activities with your kids. Second, think about how you are communicating. Will the communication be perceived as a threat? The reality is that many classrooms use threat as a primary lever to achieve control. Neuroscience research is telling us that while you may achieve control through threat and raising stress, it may be at the high cost of student learning.
You, as a teacher, demonstrate that wrong answers are acceptable based on how you respond. Are you supportive? Do you dig deeper to help understand what went wrong? Is there a culture of failing forward in your classroom or in your family?
How does competition work in your classroom? Is it friendly and motivating or is it cutthroat? What role have you played in the creation of this culture? What can you do to help create the culture that you want to have?
In my classroom I ran a writing workshop. As part of this system, students took turns reading original pieces of writing from the Author’s Chair. This could be a very stressful experience so it was important that we set up ground rules to make it safe. We set up protocols about the type of feedback they received from students and from me while in the Author’s Chair. Over time students saw it as a safe activity and were eager to share their work and get feedback from their peers.
In cooperative math activities, groups often get very competitive and it can become a “race” to finish fastest or the most problems. To change the dynamic I created a self-assessment activity in which each group needed to think about how they were relating to each other and including each other throughout the activity. This had a significant impact on their behavior and student surveys indicated that they thought this was a key to making that activity successful.
There are many ways to lower threat and stress in the classroom. Find ways to focus on learning and growth. For example, allow students to re-test so they do not perceive the assessment as too “high stakes.” Design activities for success at multiple levels so students do not shut down early if they perceive they cannot be a “top scorer.” Practice student-to-student feedback so that students learn how to support each other and do not fear teasing or bullying from classmates. In one study, researchers demonstrated that writing about test anxiety actually reduced stress and improved test scores. This idea around processing stress in the classroom setting could be used at home as well. Writing or talking through the issue can ease the mind.
We already know that “stress kills.” What neuroscience is starting to teach us is that “stress kills learning.” Let’s de-stress our learning environments and support our students.