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Are Stress Levels Inhibiting Our Ability To Learn?

As parents and schools continue to move their learning online in a bid to overcome the challenges impacting learning during these times, there is one factor that many have overlooked: the role that heightened stress levels play on our abilities to learn. While e-learning has wide-ranging benefits, particularly in higher education, it is not exempted from external influences such as the presence of stress. In past years, multiple studies have shown that a person’s stress hormones and the neurotransmitters released during stressful times can have a direct impact on their memory abilities. While stress is not uncommon in educational settings, there is no denying that students and teachers across the globe are experiencing higher stress levels right now. From having a diminished memory to impacting your ability to retain and process new information, here is how your stress levels are affecting your learning.

Stress Can Impact Your Ability To Recall Older Memories

The secretion of stress hormones has been shown to affect both short and long term memory recall abilities. In a University of Basel study led by Sandra Ackermann, participants who had a higher level of cortisol present in their brains during a recall activity found it more difficult to recall specific activities. For students, this relates to the common term ‘mind blanks’ that affects many students during high-pressure situations including examinations and presentations. The presence of stress hormones can also alter stored information. Past research by Elizabeth Loftus has shown how a person’s memory can be influenced by misinformation and the creation of false memories, leading to confusion and the recall of inaccurate academic information for students.

Higher Levels of Stress Can Impair mPFC Activity

The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) of our brain plays a key role in decision making, memory recall, and memory consolidation. The mPFC relies heavily on the hippocampus, which is crucial in the formation and storage of new information and hence, our learning abilities. However, excess levels of cortisol (the hormone secreted with stress) can impede the hippocampus’s ability to perform these functions, leading to a decreased ability to encode information.

Therefore, while a student may be engaged with their lectures, the amount of information that they register and retain for future use is impacted. This also highlights the importance of regular study breaks and effective stress management techniques that are built into a student’s daily routine, including physical activity and the perks of spending time outdoors. A recent study published in the Frontiers of Psychology found that having contact with nature for 20 minutes such as a stroll can significantly decrease your stress hormone levels.

Being Stressed Can Affect Your Engagement Levels

In the past, studies in the workplace have shown that stress levels can impact employee engagement and productivity. It is no different for students. When a student is stressed or worried about something irrelevant to their course, their ability to focus on their lectures or topic at hand is diminished. Dating back as far as 2010, a National College Health Assessment by the American College Health Association showed that over 25 percent of students said that their stress levels lowered their grades or capacity to complete their courses.

Also, stress levels impact your sleep quality. Sleep has been repeatedly linked to the cognitive function with people with better sleep habits having better cognitive functions including improved memory and recall abilities. For students, this means a lowered ability to recall academic materials and make the connection between stored knowledge and new ones during continuous learning.

With mounting evidence supporting the role the stress can play in impeding the learning process, it has now become vital that educators, parents, and students recognize the interplay between the two- and implement healthy stress management habits that combat it. By educating themselves on the link between the two, students can understand just how important it is to prioritize self-care, mental health, and daily stress management.

Written by Jennifer McLee

Education World Contributor

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