Researcher Sian Beilock, associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago, tested 73 undergraduates to measure their working memory capacities, levels of math anxiety, and cortisol levels, and found a few things:
- Those with relatively low levels of working memory (the mental reserve that people use to process information and find solutions during tests) tended to be less impacted by stress on a test. They generally use less mental energy overall, so stress didn't create drastic changes in their scores. (Bad and good news for those who use less working memory!)
- Among those with higher levels of working memory--those who tend to have greater potential to score higher on tests, stress can have a significant impact: rising levels of cortisol, the so-called "stress hormone", either led to a boost in performance, or a flop. For those with higher levels of math anxiety--fear felt when just thinking about taking a math test--cortisol led to lower scores on tests. However, in more confident students,rising cortisol levels actually improved their scores, providing them with the extra boost they needed! It seems the attitude of the student is the pivotal factor in whether cortisol has a positive or negative impact.
"Under stress, we have a variety of bodily reactions; how we interpret these reactions predicts whether we will choke or thrive under pressure," Beilock said in a press release. "If a student interprets their physiological response as a sign they are about to fail, they will. And, when taking a math test, students anxious about math are likely to do this. But the same physiological response can also be linked to success if a student's outlook is positive," she explained.
So how does one create this positive outlook? Several stress management techniques can work. Here are some I recommend:
- Visualizations: Athletes use visualizations regularly to improve their performance. Just imagine yourself succeeding, and you're more likely to. Here are some tips.
- Change Your Self Talk: A take-away message from this study is that what you say to yourself about what you experience--how you interpret your stress response, for example--can make a huge difference in your outcome. Changing how you habitually interpret things can have an impact on your test scores, as well as other areas of life. Chang your thoughts, change your life, the saying goes. Here's how.
- Banish Perfectionism: Those who have perfectionistic tendencies often put more pressure on themselves to do a job that's, well, perfect. This can increase test anxiety, intensify stress responses, and lead to more negative outcomes. Test yourself to see if you're a perfectionist (hint: if you think you are, you may be right!), and see what you can do to overcome perfectionism.
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Beilock, S. Choke or Thrive? The Relation between Salivary Cortisol and Math Performance Depends on Individual Differences in Working Memory and Math Anxiety. Journal of Emotion, Autust 2011.