How Stress Affects Learning (and Teaching!)

Posted on Mar 16, 2017

Just before Spring Break we began the ATLE blog series, “Reducing Stress in the Learning Environment” with Dr. Erin Fisher’s discussion of “How Learning Occurs”. Dr. Fisher picks up where she left off this week with “How Stress Impacts Learning (and Teaching!)”. – Mathew Oakes

The human body is truly an amazing, responsive system. Whenever we are in a dangerous or threatening situation, a cascade of neurochemical and hormonal changes occurs, enabling us to fight or flee. While this response helps us survive in the face of imminent danger, it is not a particularly helpful response in a learning environment. In fact, when the fight or flight response does indeed occur, learning most likely can’t. In order to understand why, it’s helpful to know what is happening in the brain when we are stressed or frightened.


At the moment your senses perceive danger (and this is subjective—to one person, this might take being chased by a dog on their morning jog; to another, such as one of our students, this could be being asked to answer a question aloud in class), a neural network called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA Axis) is activated. If the hypothalamus receives a message that there is a threat, it notifies the pituitary gland, which in turn activates the adrenal glands, and then adrenal glands then release norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol.

This “2-Minute Neuroscience” video provide a great visual representation of this process.

The result of this process? A faster heart rate, more shallow and faster breathing, clammy hands, dry mouth, and an odd feeling in your stomach. Most of us know this feeling well.


If you’re being chased by a growling dog, this process is exactly what you need. But what if this response is occurring in a classroom? When this stress response occurs, two things necessary for learning are negatively impacted: attention and memory. Let’s look at attention first.


Paying attention is considered an “executive function.” What this means is that the “higher” areas of our brain, such as our frontal lobes, are what are most active when we are paying attention. An area in our frontal lobes known as the prefrontal cortex is responsible for such things as selective attention, impulse control, and reasoning, and when the HPA axis has been triggered, this area gets short circuited. The brain’s focus narrows on the senses most necessary to stay alive, and as a result we may not be able to concentrate on what someone is saying, and we may not be able to complete a complex, higher level thinking task.


Our ability to make memories is also impacted in a similar way. The area of our brain involved in the initial stages of memory making is called the hippocampus, and during acute stress, high levels of cortisol overstimulate the hippocampus and as a result, the most emotionally salient events during the stressful event are potentiated, but often no other details are. This is why your memories of traumatic or stressful events may be dominated by a few intense details of one or two aspects of the events but lacking any others. This is why eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. The witness to a crime may remember some aspects of the event, but usually not the kind of details required to be reliable and accurate. If a student is feeling overly stressed in your class, he or she will not likely remember much of what you were talking about that day. Similarly, it works in the opposite direction as well: if a student has severe test anxiety, the triggering of the HPA-Axis dampens the ability for the hippocampus to work at retrieving stored information, thus everything the student knew prior to the moment of the exam seems to have disappeared.


What about chronic stress? Over time, elevated levels of cortisol may result in the loss of mass in the hippocampus (McEwan, Nasca, & Grey, 2016). Thus, long-term stress can actually result in the loss of long-term memories in addition to compromising the ability to make new memories. Accordingly, students who have dysfunctional, abusive, or highly stressful home environments are going to struggle more than a student who does not.


Stress doesn’t skip over teachers, either. Studies show that teachers who teach in high-poverty areas, as well as those without supportive administrations, report greater disengagement and have students who do not perform as well as those teachers who report working in supportive environments (Woolfolk, 2013). Betonio (2015) found that college faculty reported greater stress when working in environments where their input into college policies was not requested or valued, where there was uncertainty about their development and/or future employment, and where they reported poor interpersonal relationships with their superiors. Accordingly, faculty in those situations reported feeling less effective in their classroom performance.


So, what can we do to help our students who are experiencing stress in and out of the classroom?   First and foremost, our classrooms should represent a space in which our students feel welcome and safe. We should exhibit empathy and compassion with our students regularly, so that even if they are feeling temporarily stressed by something being asked of them the feeling is not exacerbated or heightened by an already existing fear of being in our class. Teaching and/or modeling metacognitive skills such as planning, self-evaluating, and time management can help students feel more in control, which is a tried-and-true method for reducing the stress response. Model an incremental view of ability, which means that you see knowledge and skills as changeable and improvable, so that students recognize a poor performance one day or one assignment doesn’t mean a poor performance forever. Emphasize the process of learning as central to their education rather than the end result (a particular grade) being all that matters.  Finally, if a student is having a legitimate stress response in your classroom, give them the opportunity step out of the classroom, to breathe freely, and return if and when they are ready.


As for you: if you are feeling stressed, reach out to a colleague to share your feelings. Find opportunities to engage in activities that are fulfilling but are not related to the classroom so that you can disconnect from the stressful feelings associated with teaching. Yoga and meditation have both been repeatedly proven to reduce and diminish HPA-Axis over activation, so consider enrolling in a class. Take care of yourself, and your students will benefit.


– Erin Fisher, PhD, has taught psychology at Rock Valley College since 1998.


Betonio, J.R. (2015). Stress factors and the teaching performance of college faculty. International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, 5, (7), 651 – 655. DOI: 10.7763/IJSSH.2015.V5.534

McEwan, Nasca, & Gray (2016). Stress Effects on Neuronal Structure: Hippocampus, Amygdala, and Prefrontal Cortex. Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews, 41, 3–23. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.171.

Woolfolk, A. (2013) Educational Psychology.   Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

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