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May 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 8

Turn & Talk / Ayanna Thomas on Anxiety, the Brain, and Helping Learners Cope

Social-emotional learning
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Ayanna Thomas, a cognitive psychologist, is a professor of psychology and directs the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab at Tufts University. Her research team researches memory and age-related change in cognition, and also how stress and anxiety affect the brain and learning.
At the Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston last year, you presented research on what stress and anxiety make happen inside the brain that affects memory and cognition. What goes on in the brain when a person is under stress or anxious?
It's important to understand that stress and anxiety are different. And because of that difference, we have to address how to deal with them in different ways. There's a physiological response that accompanies an acute stressor. Think about the student who is going in to take a high-stakes exam. The day of the exam, the student might feel nervous. That feeling might be experienced as "butterflies in the stomach" or perhaps perspiring. These physiological indicators are associated with changes in hormone release in the context of an acute stressor. There's a release of hormones like norepinephrine that may result in the increased heart rate and perspiration. There is also a delayed release of the hormone cortisol.
These hormones have been shown to have both positive and negative effects on learning new information and remembering that information. For example, a great deal of research suggests that when cortisol peaks, retrieval of information from memory is impaired. So now think about the student who is taking the exam and because of her stress level, feels like she can't remember anything! This is likely because of cortisol.
Remember that the impact and experience of stress is different from anxiety, which is an emotional response. Feelings of anxiety can also disrupt cognition in the context of classroom learning or high-stakes tests. If one is anxious, one may be distracted and focused on managing that anxiety as opposed to what is going on in the classroom.
You've said some of the traditional ways teachers try to help an anxious student—like telling them to calm down—aren't always helpful. Can you explain?
Unfortunately, telling students to calm down doesn't give them the tools to manage their stress levels and their anxiety. How can one do something (like calming down) if they don't know how to do it? Several emotion regulation strategies have proven effective for young people in the classroom. Mindfulness strategies and yoga have been employed to some positive effect. Reducing the factors that cause high levels of anxiety may also be a path forward. For example, eliminating high-stakes exams could prove effective.
What about helping learners resist harmful hormonal effects from acute stressors?
For acute stress, there are few reliable methods available to blunt the hormonal cascade once it begins. My lab has approached this problem by figuring out ways to build what we call stress-resistant memories, with the understanding that managing hormonal responding may not be practical in the classroom. We have found that robust learning strategies that require students to develop broad conceptual knowledge result in that broad knowledge (or specific content connected to it) being more easily accessed from memory, even when students are stressed as they try to recall the knowledge. Students' memories become more stress-resistant when using such active learning strategies than when using strategies that are passive.
What kinds of teacher responses or practices are likely to help an anxious student who's struggling with a particular learning task? What might teachers say?
I don't necessarily think teachers can or should say anything to help. What I think will help is adopting practices that reduce stress and anxiety (like collaborative testing or social scaffolding in learning). For example, in my classes I allow for some of my exams to be taken in collaborating groups of three or four students. Students work on these exams together, but submit their own individual product for grading. I think that the dynamics of the classroom may also impact students' experiences of stress and anxiety, and we can and should recognize what the more helpful dynamics might be.
I also think that teachers should be encouraged to consider making classroom education more about instruction on how to think as opposed getting through specified content.
You mentioned there's a lot of cognitive research on math anxiety. What have researchers recently learned about it?
Research on math anxiety has demonstrated that this kind of anxiety is universal. Across different populations, many people experience this kind of anxiety, and it increases as we age. Importantly, teacher anxiety can be communicated and transferred to students. Therefore, teachers need to recognize their own anxieties and deal with them. They can manage their emotional responses by engaging in continued education to increase confidence. Teachers may also wish to be more mindful of how they communicate information to students, and monitor for potentially anxious communications. Teachers should avoid statements like "Just try harder" or "It's OK, not everyone is good at math." Students may already feel as if they are trying very hard.
Research has also demonstrated that math is sometimes taught in ways that may not capitalize on students' earlier experience with mathematical concepts. For example, some indigenous populations teach spatial and location concepts early to young children, because these concepts are important for their communication. However, the relationship between spatial thinking and math is not highlighted in early math education, even in these indigenous communities. For instance, children raised speaking the Warlpiri language have the ability to handle sophisticated terminology about space and direction with accuracy. Highlighting similarities between abilities learned in everyday life and math concepts, and capitalizing on community-based learning may go a long way toward improving math education and reducing anxiety surrounding math.
—Naomi Thiers
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space.

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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