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April 01

Gail Brown

Our brains, seahorses and emotions that support learning, Part 1…

  • Mon 7th Jan 2013
  • Gail

Aside from my main source, Diving for Seahorses, I’ve also found a recent 2016 review of learning and memory and how this impacts on classrooms, by Vogel and Schwabe. Our emotions when we are trying to learn anything, will affect how much we learn, how quickly we learn and how much we remember of what we are learning.

Think, for example, how nervous you were when you first sat behind the steering wheel of a car: Overwhelming, anxious, worried about crashing the car, maybe your hands were sweaty – it all seemed so difficult. Now, after years of driving practice (hopefully with not too many accidents?), this doesn’t even cross your mind when you drive somewhere?

Until I prompted that memory, you had forgotten those feelings. And your memory of them now (today) is very different from your memory when you were sharing your fears with your friends that afternoon, after your first drive, isn’t it?

Stress and anxiety impact on students in classrooms in many different ways. Vogel and Schwabe report that 70% of primary school children have said they experienced worries, stress and anxiety in their classrooms. As a teacher, you may or may not be able to know who this is, just know that it’s likely to be more than half your class?

Learning is affected during or immediately after stressful events – so if there is an incident in the playground, before school or during a break, this can affect students’ learning as they arrive into their classrooms.

The impacts are on the amount that is learned, which is clearly LESS, and also on the connections between new learning and what is already known. Stressed students are less likely to integrate any new knowledge into their background knowledge.

In an exam or assessment context, clearly stress can affect students’ performance in different ways, including retrieval of their knowledge and strategies that they have already learned. If this impact is large, then teachers may underestimate what students are capable of doing.

Lastly, let’s not forget that teachers can be stressed too – and the effects are likely to be the same. Stressed teachers, like their students, are likely to have difficulty both taking on new concepts and skills, and also linking these into their existing knowledge.

Overall, our brains react to stressful situations in the same ways, whether we are teachers or students – stress affects our ability to learn, as well as our ability to remember what we’ve learned.

Consequently, reducing stress in schools is one way to positively impact on everyone!

Ostby, H. & Ostby, Y. (2019). Diving for Seahorses: The Science and Secrets of Memory, New South Publishing, University of New South Wales.

Vogel, S., & Schwabe, L. (2016) Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom, npj Science of Learning volume 1, Article number: 16011 (2016), Downloaded 25 February, 2019.

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