A new study suggests an important, albeit often overlooked component for classroom and athletic success is stress management.
University of Chicago researchers believe learning how to correctly manage stress is critical for student success both in the classroom and on the field.
“We found that cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, can either be tied to a student’s poor performance on a math test or contribute to success, depending on the frame of mind of the student going into the test,” said Dr. Sian Beilock, one of the nation’s leading experts on poor performance by otherwise talented people.
In a new paper published in the current issue of the journal Emotion, Beilock and her colleagues explain how stress can cause performance failure in math.
Specifically, Beilock suggests there is a critical connection between working memory, math anxiety and salivary cortisol.
As background, researchers explain that working memory is the mental reserve that people use to process information and figure out solutions during tests.
Math anxiety is fear or apprehension when just thinking about taking a math test. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland and associated with stress-related changes in the body; it is often referred to as the “stress hormone.”
In the current research project, Beilock and her team tested 73 undergraduate students to determine their working memory capacities and their level of math anxiety. They also measured cortisol levels (via a saliva sample) before and after a stressful math test.
The findings were interesting as students with low working memories displayed little change in cortisol production or math anxiety. Experts explain this finding by suggesting students with lower working memory exert relatively less mental effort to begin with, so taking a stressful test didn’t drastically compromise their performance.
However, among people with large working memories, those who were typically the most talented, rising cortisol either led to a performance boost or a performance flop — depending on whether they were already anxious about math.
Among students without a fear of math, cortisol increased during the test and was accompanied by improved performance. Researchers believe this shows that for confident students, the body’s response to stress actually pushed them to greater heights.
For students with math anxiety, increasing cortisol levels were tied to poor performance.
“Under stress, we have a variety of bodily reactions; how we interpret these reactions predicts whether we will choke or thrive under pressure,” Beilock said.
“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 further explained.
In other words, a student’s perspective going into testing or game situations can determine success or failure.
Beilock has found that students can change their outlooks by writing about their anxieties before a test and “off-loading” their fears, or simply thinking about a time in the past when they have succeeded.
However, not all stress is the same. For example, taking an exam brings on a different kind of pressure than when a student recites a memorized speech before classmates or an athlete plays before a packed stadium says Beilock.
In another paper published this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Beilock and her colleagues identify ways in which people can succumb to pressure.
The work, which was based on a series of experiments with several hundred undergraduate students in varying stressful situations, is reported in the paper “Choking Under Pressure: Multiple Routes to Skill Failure.”
In the study, researchers explored two theories of why people choke: One perspective suggests that people are distracted by worries, and as a result, fail to access their talents; another view is that that stress causes people to pay too much attention to their performance and they become self-conscious.
“What we showed in these experiments is that the situation determines what kind of choking develops. Knowing this can help people choose the right strategy to overcome the problem,” Beilock said.
In the case of test-taking, good test preparation and a writing exercise can boost performance by reducing anxiety and freeing up working memory. The kind of choking prompted by performing before others calls for a different remedy.
“When you’re worried about doing well in a game, or giving a memorized speech in front of others, the best thing to do is to distract yourself with a little tune before you start so you don’t become focused on all the details of what you’ve done so many times before,” she said.
“On the playing field, thinking too much can be a bad thing,” she explained.
Source: University of Chicago