Guide To Teaching and Learning

How Stress Impacts Learning

How stress impacts learning and how to address and alleviate some stressors

Stress is an enemy of learning. Stress releases cortisol and there is some evidence that cortisol impairs memory. Teaching your students the following can help them understand the impact of stress and anxiety on learning.

While it’s an oversimplification, the amygdala can be thought of the neurophysiological seat of emotion. It’s a structure found deep within what has come to be called the ‘lizard brain’, the part of the brain comprising the brain stem, cerebellum and basal ganglia. It’s the fight-flight-freeze part of the brain that keeps us alive by making us run when a lion approaches our camp or making us scream when a spider drops on our shoulder. Also in the lizard brain lies a structure called the hippocampus, which has been shown to play a role in forming explicit or declarative memories. These kinds of memories are consciously recallable memories pertaining to facts and knowledge. After rehearsal—or after multiple instances of recalling particular declarative memories, the hippocampus plays a role in memory consolidation, or transporting declarative memories to other regions of the cerebral cortex where things get put together. When we are stressed, our adrenal glands produce cortisol. Because the hippocampus contains a large density of cortisol receptors, if there is too much cortisol around, the hippocampus can become overwhelmed and, over time, atrophy. … A coarse way to summarize the entire phenomenon is that stress, or cortisol production, can lead to short-term memory loss and impede long-term memory retrieval. In short,… science suggests that if we want our students to learn, we should do what we can to lessen their anxiety and introduce and point them to stress-reducing practices. (McGuire)

Contemplative practices to reduce stress

Tell students that stress and anxiety don’t just feel bad, they are bad: for your physical health, for your mental health, and for learning. Contemplative practices help reduce stress, improve attention, deepen learning, and improve memory. Encourage them to manage students by practicing such mindfulness exercises as: 

  • Focus on the breath
  • Listening to the sounds in the room
  • Close observation of an image or object
  • Freewriting
  • A multitude of mindfulness apps

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