Guide To Teaching and Learning

Stress, Anxiety and Learning

From climate change and mass migration, to economic crises, protests for racial justice, and the pandemic, there are a number of global events and shifts framing our students’ lives. The instability and uncertainty impact students in different ways and often lead to high levels of stress and low levels of confidence in a stable future. On top of that, increased reliance on technology and exposure to social media keep students inundated with information and trapped in a perpetual state of comparison. And now we’re learning online in a pandemic. Even as we may be feeling, they’re overwhelmed, exhausted and burned out. 

In 2019, the top factors that negatively impacted New School students’ individual academic performance were sleep difficulties (20%), depression (22%), anxiety (25.2%) and stress (30.5%). While we expect college students to experience some level of stress, extensive levels of stress can be detrimental to learning, engagement and wellbeing.  

How stress and anxiety impact learning

Teach students about how stress impacts learning: While it’s an oversimplification, the amygdala can be thought of as 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 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 encourage them to use stress-reducing practices. They may appreciate this video: The surprising link between stress and memory 

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. They’re spending money for their education; they need to address stress to make it worthwhile. They’ll learn more.

Practical ways to support students coping with stress and anxiety 

Model Self-Care and Compassion During and Between Classes 

  • In real-time meetings, check in at the beginning; genuinely inquire how they are doing
  • Facilitate a mindfulness activity and promote mindful activities such as a short meditation focusing on the breath, the sounds in the room, or a particular object
  • Consider a brief writing exercise to relieve stress
  • If you’re facilitating a synchronous session, do a “temperature check” of the ‘room’ every so often
  • For longer synchronous session, allow time for “body breaks”
  • Communicate caring
  • Share your own stressors and ways you cope

Foster Social Connection 

  • Incorporate the use of small groups, whether in real time or as students work on their own
  • In synchronous sessions, provide opportunities for small breakout sessions for discussion of particular points
  • Promote the use of ‘study buddies’ 
  • Promote the use of ‘making groups’ where students can support each other and provide feedback via Zoom or other video app

Responding to students in distress 

There are New School support services you can refer students to and you can use Starfish to raise an alert about individual students, which will be triaged to the appropriate office.

Student Support & Advocacy has created Fostering Student Health in the Virtual Classroom, a resource for faculty that includes:

New School Resources for Students

Notes from The New School Executive Summary 2019, American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II 

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