A large number of studies has been conducted to better understand how stress affects learning and memory. The effects of stress were found to be complex, though, with stress having both enhancing and impairing effects on memory, depending on the specific memory process or stage that is affected by stress and the activity profile of major physiological stress response systems. (Vogel and Schwabe, 2016)
This week I had a rare opportunity to deliver a lesson during which the students felt under a bit of stress. I suppose it sounds a bit odd. However, this was neither the type of stress which is life-threatening, longlasting, repeated or even caused deliberately but rather a temporary rush of adrenalin which you get in the anticipation of something ‘dangerous’. I’d compare it to the feeling I used to have when on December 6, I waited for St. Nicolas and his two companions (the Angel and the Devil) to come and knock at our door. At some point in my life, when I was very small, this experience did feel almost life-threatening since the Devil might have put me in his huge, filthy sack and taken me to Hell with him. Later on, when I got a little older, the whole festival felt somewhat offensive and embarrassing. I knew the Devil was not real but he (or she) was there ready to rattle his chains, stick out his tongue at me and make all sorts of ridiculous threats. So I understand that this week, some students might have felt a little uncomfortable and some might have felt a little stressed in the situation I’m going to describe.
There’s this tradition in the Czech Republic called The last ringing of the bell. On their last day of school, before their final exams start, senior students put on various costumes and they pour into the streets to kick up a row. Making a lot of noise, they stop people and ask for money. Then they move into the school building and visit every classroom where they soil every single student who doesn’t give them any coins. They use lipsticks, styling mousse, heavy perfumes, vinegar, flour, you name it. All students are instructed to wear sensible clothes on this day (and to have a spare set of clothing, just in case). Everybody feels a mixture of love and hate in relation to this event. And it’s probably stressful for some too.
I was teaching a class of 12-year-olds when we heard the first signs of turmoil. I saw the excitement in their eyes but I repeatedly encouraged them to stay calm and seated. What’s more, I kept on presenting the present perfect vs. past simple rules. I told them jokingly that we are brave and we’ll persist. The noise got louder and quieter as the older students were popping in and out of the other classrooms. This obviously added to the thrill and intensified the students’ nervousness. Nevertheless, I patiently asked them to work on the exercises in their workbooks. We finished reading the very last sentence of the very last exercise when the villains suddenly stormed into the classroom…
I’m saying this because it occurred to me that maybe, this distracting event may have had a positive impact on the lesson and the matter I was teaching in that it made them more memorable. I wonder whether next time I see them, the students will remember what I told them in the previous lesson. In other words, I’d like to know whether this rather tricky language point will be better remembered because of the link to this somewhat stressful experience. However, the question is: did the students really pay attention? Did they notice?
One way or another, I don’t want to be over-enthusiastic about the effects of stress in education. Alan Woodruff sums up part of the article mentioned above:
The memory-enhancing effects of stress are typically limited to the stressful event: threatening a student with punishment as they learn their multiplication tables won’t help them learn any better (and might even make it worse), but it will make them remember the threat of punishment.
Vogel, S., & Schwabe, L. (2016). Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom. npj Science of Learning, volume1, article number: 16011 (2016)