The Goldilocks principle
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Why the Goldilocks principle of stress is no fairy tale for learners

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Stressed? It might be affecting your ability to learn and use new skills but, says Tanya Boyd, there are ways to use it to your advantage.

22nd Apr 2022
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Gallup’s 2021 Global Emotions Report concluded that 2020 was ‘the most stressful year in recent history’ and while there was some initial rebounding of positive emotions later in 2021, an American Psychological Association study published in March 2022 indicates that long-term and acute stress is again increasing in response to inflation, financial concerns, and worry over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

The non-linear nature of stress

The relationship between stress and learning is not black and white, nor linear, which makes addressing it a bit complicated. But there is a wealth of research on the effects of stress that we can draw on to help set people up for success in learning, in the midst of the various levels of stress that they may be experiencing.

There are a few important facts to lay on the table up front. First, stress is a physiological phenomenon, not just a psychological one - levels of stress can be measured in a lab by looking at certain hormones and neurotransmitters in a person’s system.

Stress usually gets in the way of memory retrieval, so even if someone has learned something, stress can make it difficult for them to access that memory

Second, stress is individual. It is an individual’s internal appraisal of a situation as stressful that activates the physiological stress response. What is stressful for one person is not necessarily stressful for another. Third, stress impacts people’s ability to encode and retrieve memories, and that is its primary connection to learning.

In his recent book How People Learn, Nick Shackleton-Jones defines learning as a ‘change in behavior or capability as a result of memory.’ Anything that impacts memory will impact learning. But the relationship is complicated. For example:

  • Stress that is experienced either right before or right after new learning is presented can enhance learning, helping to form robust memories; but stress that happens more than 30 minutes prior to learning impairs memory formation
     
  • Stress that is related to the content to be learned can enhance learning, but stress that is unrelated to the learning content impedes learning. Emotionally arousing events, which are a type of stressor, are typically well-remembered
     
  • Stress usually gets in the way of memory retrieval, so even if someone has learned something, stress can make it difficult for them to access that memory
     
  • Context matters; where learning and ‘testing’ (memory retrieval) happens in the same context, stress has less of a negative impact
     
  • Stress actually switches the part of the brain that makes memories away from the ‘cognitive’ more flexible part to the ‘habitual’ more rigid part, which means it is harder to update these memories in light of new information, which is a key part of reskilling

Creating impactful learning

We might be tempted to throw up our hands in the face of such a complicated picture of the impact of stress on learning, but if we look a little closer, we can pull out some impactful actions to improve learning outcomes, even in the midst of stress.

1. First and foremost, be aware of the impact of stress on memory formation, retrieval, and updating; and make learners aware of it as well. Even just knowing that stress does have an impact can help prevent people from making negative judgements about their own capabilities if they struggle with learning or recall while under stress.
 

2. Ensure an emotional component (positive) is included when presenting new information to learners, as this will likely enhance memory. An example would be to make a clear connection between the content and the learner’s everyday life.
 

3. Avoid stress before ‘testing’ or asking people to use what they have learned. Provide many opportunities to practice using knowledge or skills before being ‘tested.’ 

Under stress, people tend to stick with more habitual behaviours and will find it hard to consider and explore more flexible options

4. Look carefully at what needs to be truly learned versus what could be achieved with performance support tools, or resources at the point of need. If you can provide workers with a resource that they can use to perform the required actions without needing to rely on memory, there is a better chance of consistent performance that will not be disrupted by stressors that might occur at the time the person needs to demonstrate the behaviour. An example would be a safety checklist, or a list of communication tips.
 

5. If you need learners to be in a creative, flexible frame of mind, for problem solving, or innovation, be sure these sessions are not held under pressure; and work with individuals to give them coping strategies for managing personal stressors. Under stress, people tend to stick with more habitual behaviours and will find it hard to consider and explore more flexible options.
 

6. Finally, take learning to the place where it will be used. Context is powerful – memory is enhanced when learning and the use of that learning are co-located. Doing this can reduce or remove the impact of stress on a learner’s ability to remember what they previously learned.

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