At this time of year, stress levels can be pretty high. Holiday preparations coincide with the end of semester final exams for college students as well as SAT testing for some high school students. Stress has many negative effects on the body, including impacting memory. With high stakes testing coming at a stressful time in the calendar, it can be double whammy for some. A new study published in the journal Science on November 25, 2016 shows that how a person studies for a test makes a big difference.
Researchers at Tufts University recently published the results of a study that showed students who studied for exams by taking a practice test, were able to protect their memory from stress. When a person learning a subject studies by taking a preliminary test, similar to one they will take for a grade, their overall results are better.
Senior study author Ayanna Thomas, PhD who is an associate professor in psychology at the university explained, “Typically, people under stress are less effective at retrieving information from memory. We now show for the first time that the right learning strategy, in this case retrieval practice or taking practice tests, results in such strong memory representations that even under high levels of stress, subjects are still able to access their memories.”
Her team experimented with testing and study methods on 120 research volunteers. In one group, participants learned a series of words and images using retrieval practice wherein they took a practice test of the material before the actual test. The students who learned the words and pictures this way showed no impairment in memory after even experiencing acute stress. Another group of students used conventional methods of studying for a test like going over material repeatedly and using flashcards. This group remembered fewer items on the tests, especially when under stress.
The experiment went like this. Participants were asked to learn 30 words and 30 images. Each word or image was shown on a computer screen for 10 seconds. Participants were allowed to use a keyboard to take down notes or sentences. This was done to simulate how most students take notes in classroom situations.
Moving on from the learning part of the experiment to the study part, the participants were divided into two groups. Students in the conventional study group were given multiple timed study periods and the retrieval practice group students were given multiple timed practice exams.
After a 24 hour break, each group was again divided in half. One half, the “stressed out” group was asked to solve complex math problems in front of judges and stand up in a group and give an unrehearsed speech which was videotaped. This is a standard scenario in research used to induce stress called the Trier Social Stress Test. Stress response was also measured through heart-rate monitors and standardized self-reporting questionnaires, also typical for this kind of research.
They were then given two memory tests on the material presented the day before; one immediately following the stressful tasks and one twenty minutes later. The remaining students still completed a task that took as long as their stressed counterparts, before taking their same exam , but was not stressful in anyway.
The results? Stress affected memory across the board but stressed students who used retrieval practice did better than those who used study practice. The same was seen in the group of students who had not be exposed to stress; studying by way of a practice test produced better results.
There are multiple studies that show how stress impacts memory, but this particular study is one of the few that tried to ascertain whether the learning strategy used to commit material to memory could mitigate the stress factor. The team at Tufts hopes to expand their work into more complex situations but feels these results are an important factor for educators to consider. Check out the video to hear from the group on how it went.
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