Exam Anxiety: The Science of Learning and Fear

Do you find exams stressful? What is your usual reaction to stressful situations? Freeze, fight, or flight. Read on to find out why we have these reactions and what to do to overcome them.

The full story

The reason why we remember specific moments or movies is because they have been stored in our memory under the influence of emotions. When we win or fail, cry or celebrate, we learn fast, deep and plenty. But when we are afraid our brain limits our ability to think, for a good reason.

Freeze, fight, or flight

Fear is an emotion induced when we face a threat to our physical or psychological well being. It causes a change in brain and organ functions and ultimately in our behavior. First, we get stressed or aggressive, then we are left with three final ways out: freeze, fight, or flight.

The reason for this is evolution. Over the last million years, we learn that when we meet a dangerous animal, we better freeze, fight or run and hide. To save our life this is now programmed in our genes. But something else happens.

When it gets dangerous a specific region of our brain, the Amygdala takes over. Its job is to protect us and save our life. To act fast it refrains us from thinking and leaves us only with those three options. This makes creative and critical thought processes impossible.

The research

High pressure triggers a similar response. In one experiment, German neuroscientist Prof. Dr. Huether measured the brain function of young men playing a car racing game. The race was on and the men eager to win. When the researchers later looked at the scans of the brain they saw shockingly little activity. In fact, the young men hardly used their brains at all and they certainly didn’t remember much.

Later the researchers repeated the experiment. This time they did not play the game themselves but just watched from inside the car sitting next to the driver. Instead of focusing to win, they focused on a lot of other things: driving behavior, race track, other cars. This time the brains showed lots of activity. Learning happened and memories were created.

The scientists concluded that when we panic at a maths exam or when a salesman fears he might miss his monthly target, it can create a tunnel vision. Then our vision field becomes smaller, our learning limited and we cannot find the road to success.

Switch back to learning mode

Next time when you are stressed to perform or when you panic during an exam, try this quick fix. First slowly breath in through your nose. To do it slow enough, count from one to five. Then breath out through your mouth, again counting to five. Repeat that for 1-5 minutes and your body will relax and your brain can switch from protection mode back to a learning mode.

What is your personal experience? Do you think we should apply pressure and push for a goal in order to maximize our learning? Or do you think we should free our minds from pressure and goals? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

“From someone who always performs poorly under pressure, thanks sprouts.”

– Namira Shabnom


Dig deeper

Classroom exercise

Here are some tips on how to incorporate mindfulness into the classroom, create a stress-free environment to improve learning and retention. Let us know in the comments below if you have your own mindfulness tips from your classroom.

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