October 8, 2013

Stress and Anxiety: Effects on Learning

By Funmi Agunbiade, Pharm.D. PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Union Memorial Hospital

Its 5am.  You wake up groggy, wanting so badly to snooze the alarm and take the day off, but suddenly you remember you have that exam at 7am.   You’ve had only 3 hours of sleep. Panic stricken, you abruptly become alert. You feel your heart racing as you do one last review of the material before the exam starts. This is it.  There’s no turning back now. Your palms are sweaty and shaky as you try hard to remember everything. As you turn in the exam, you feel certain that you could have done better if you weren’t so stressed out.

Stress is defined as a state of mental strain or emotional tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.  Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or uneasiness often brought on by an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. A lot of learners experience stress and/or anxiety before learning activities such as taking an exam, giving a presentation, answering questions in class, speaking during group activities, or turning in a paper.  Sometimes just going to class can be a source of stress and anxiety to a learner.

Stress in modest amounts can be helpful to learning by increasing awareness and being a necessary push to accomplish a task.  However, an excessive amount of stress and anxiety can have detrimental effects on learning.  Stressors can be categorized as academic, financial, time-related, health-related, and self-imposed.1  Academic stressors include the student's perception of the knowledge or skill required to do well and the perception that there is an inadequate amount of time to develop it.2  A study done to assess the interrelationship between academic stress, anxiety, time management, and leisure satisfaction among university undergraduates found that students experienced academic stress at predictable times each semester.  The greatest sources of academic stress were during periods when students were taking and studying for exams, especially when there was a large amount of content to master in a short period of time.3  The study showed that emotional and cognitive reactions to stressors occur frequently. Females may experience higher self-imposed stress and more physiological reactions to stressors than males. For example, female subjects sweat, stuttered, and experienced headaches more often due to stress than males.1

Ways to reduce stress includes effective time management, social support, positive re-appraisal, and engagement in leisure pursuits. Time management is a cluster of behaviors that facilitate productivity.1  Managing one’s time wisely can help reduce stress.  By breaking down larger tasks into smaller ones and creating a schedule for achieving each small task, makes things more manageable.  By doing this, the learner feels more in control of their learning and therefore significantly reduces the level of stress or anxiety that may be present.  One study showed that females are better at managing their time than males and they felt in better control, set and prioritized goals, and used an organized approach to tasks and workspace. It is interesting to note though that even though females had a better approach to time management they still experienced more “self-imposed” stress than males.

Leisure satisfaction is the positive feeling of contentment that results from meeting personal needs through leisure activities. A way of relieving stress/anxiety is to participate in leisure activities outside of the formal learning environment. Engaging in a hobby, exercising, trying out new things just for the fun of it can help increase relaxation prior to tackling a particularly difficult task. Personally, I have found that stepping away from the task for a short while to read a book or watch an episode of one of my favorite TV shows, helps me to gain a new perspective. This is especially helpful when I have an essay to turn in and I’m experiencing writer’s block.  It is important to note that when engaging in a leisure activity, one should be fully engaged in the leisure activity so that you can experience the highest amount of leisure satisfaction. The purpose is defeated if the learner is still obsessing or stressing about the academic task while engaging in the leisure activity.

Other studies show that an effective way of combating stress and anxiety is by practicing mindfulness. This is simply another term used for meditation. Researchers were able to show that when learners practice mindfulness every day, even if it is just for a short period of time, they were able to better focus their attention and experience less stress and anxiety.4  Personally, I have used some form of this before giving a presentation or before a class where I might be called on and was afraid that I might not know the answer to the question.

Educators can help to reduce the learners’ stress and anxiety by thoroughly reviewing and correlating the course content and the learning assignments. Learners want to learn.  They don’t want to feel bogged down doing “busy work.”  When learners do busy-work in addition to the activities that are truly pertinent to the course content, it can be stressful and they can become disengaged.

Educators can also facilitate learning and reduce stress is by placing an emphasis on learning and understanding the material instead of memorizing it. One way to achieve this is by creating class activities with groups of learners and developing the means by which learners can reflect upon what they are learning. In this way, learners take a more active role in their learning and therefore may be motivated to focus on what is needed to complete the tasks.

Excessive stress and anxiety can have a negative impact on learning.  A few simple strategies implemented by learners and educators can go a long way to reducing and preventing it.

1.  Mirsa R and McKean M.  College students' academic stress and its relation to their anxiety, time management, and leisure satisfactionAmerican Journal of Health Studies 2000; 16 (1): 41-51.
2.  Carveth JA, Gesse T, Moss N. . Survival strategies for nurse-midwifery students. Journal of Nurse-Midwifery, 1996; 41(1), 50-54.
3.  Abouserie R. Sources and levels of stress in relation to locus of control and self-esteem in university students. Educational Psychology 1994; 14(3): 323-330.
4.  Parish KA.  Quieting the Cacophony of the Mind: The Role of Mindfulness in Adult Learning. ProQuest LLC, Ed.D. Dissertation, Edgewood College.

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