An Insight on How Stress Can Be Good For Learning

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Whenever we hear the word “stress,”  we instantly recall that particular moment or event that makes us feel frustrated or anxious. Stress can mean different things to every person; it can be that moment when you suddenly become reminded of the bills you have to pay, a gathering you have to attend, or simply the thought of going to school.

However, despite the existing assumption that anything related to stress is bad, there are still good things that come from it, such as it triggers your fight-or-flight response to help you avoid an accident, meet a tight deadline, or keep your alert amid chaos. Interestingly,  a study published in the Wiley Online Library explored the myth that stress is always bad for learning. The study took an alternative stance and rejected the narrative that stress is a bad thing. In this article, we will summarize the important insights from the study on the importance of understanding that stress can both have beneficial and harmful effects. 

Stress: Historical and Current Applications

Both popular culture and academic literature, particularly those from psychology and education, utilize the term “stress.” Numerous self-help books about managing stress attest to the fact that stress is commonly referred to as a disease in contemporary popular literature, and the word “stress” is frequently used to refer to a negative result of an experience. Other applications of the word “stress” are as follows:

  • The terms “stress” and “distress” were originally used as two different concepts.
  • In health professional education today, the words “stress” and “distress” have come to be interchangeably used. Stress is also usually seen as a barrier to learning.
  • In the 1950s, references to disturbed individuals – such as distressed people, distressed school children, and distressed students became more prevalent than references to distressed biological systems.
  • The term “eustress” was coined by Selye, which means “a beneficial or healthy response to stress, associated with positive feelings,” in recognition of the positive benefits of stress.

There is strong evidence that stress and distress are not the same things. In health professional education, higher stress levels have been linked to higher levels of personal achievement in nursing students. According to a study, these students had higher registration rates as nurses and lower burnout or dropping. This demonstrates that stress is not entirely a bad thing.

However, it’s possible that the term’s original meaning has been distorted, undermining and lessening the potential benefits of stressors and the experience of stress. Focusing on suffering while researching stress presents an incomplete picture. Stress may aid in learning, but it is crucial to redefine its potential benefits first.

Stress as Positive for Learning

The Wiley Online Library study provided a clearer and more accurate definitions with regards to stress for educational context.

  • A stressor – it refers to a force that is applied. In the learning context, the force is rephrased as a challenge or learning expectation.
  • Stress – pertains to the awareness by the learner that a stressor(s) exists. It may include a psychological, physiological or behavioural response to the source of stress.
  • Outcome – a result of a sentimental attitude and learning.
  • Distress – a negative effect as a result of stress.
  • Eustress – a positive effect as a result of stress.

Simply stated, stress is distinct from the stressor since it happens when a situation is perceived as difficult or difficult. Additionally, stress may have both positive and harmful effects, and may or may not lead to learning. 

Exploring the benefits of stress for learning becomes even possible through the more specific definitions.

A Hypothetical Learning Pathway Involving Stress

The study also suggested a learning model that includes stressors and stress as parts of a learning journey. The pathway from the application of a learning stressor to its outcome consists of the following stages;

The stressor(s): the cause of stress in learning

It can be suggested that a stressor is necessary for learning to begin. It has been argued that the stimulation of stress or crisis, which causes what is known as stress-related growth, is necessary for transformative change to occur. Because learning frequently happens during an emotional experience, learning could benefit from positive stress. 

According to the study, a stressor may refer to the kind of learning expected rather than the required amount of learning.  The word “challenge” can refer to a variety of situations, such as learning about a tough subject or mastering a talent. Although the educator typically determines this, the student can also help influence the quantity and type of stressor to be administered.

Moderation

How the student manages the stressor is the subject of the following learning stage. People will quickly begin to alter their response to a stressor, whether consciously or unconsciously. The type of stress a person experiences and whether learning occurs depends on how they interpret the impact of the stressor.

Whether a person sees stress as a challenge or hindrance can be affected by several factors, including their appraisal of the stressor, motivation, complexity of the situation, mindset, personality traits, and coping strategies. Since the stressor can come from various sources, the educator can help the student to avoid stressors that are not related to learning or those that can hinder the achievement of a task.

Realization

Bodily stress response may be brought on by the learner’s moderating the stressor. A physical stress response, which is the initial stage of “generalized adaptation syndrome,” is an automatic response to the stressor. 

It has been demonstrated that autonomic responses to stress enhance work performance in air traffic control. The way any physiological response is viewed can also. be influenced by mindset. The perception of an increase in heart rate may be recognized as advantageous rather than perceived as detrimental with a positive outlook on stress. Educators play a crucial role in controlling the learning environment to maximize the chance that learning will occur due to a stressor. Additionally, learners will be more likely to experience stress positively through support from the education institution. 

Actualization: The Outcome

How the stressor as well as the moderation and realization of stress, assist learning is the final goal and the actualization of the learning process. In order for stress to be beneficial for learning, learning must have taken place at the end of a learning journey. There are two main outcomes that can be taken into account: the first is the learner’s reaction to the learning experience, and the second is the extent of learning.

Key Takeaway

The word “stressor” can be used to define a possible learning expectation that an individual may encounter. A learning stressor’s impact might be positive or negative depending on the person’s interpretation and reaction to the stressor. It can either be a helpful challenge for learning or a hindrance to development.

The idea that stressors and stress are crucial for learning and that we should be thoughtful and purposeful in how we employ stressors is possible by debunking the myth that stressors are bad for learning. There is a chance that studying in a demanding environment, like clinical education, will be stressful. However, how a stressor and the subsequent stress are perceived and utilized may enhance how students respond to stress and, in turn, lead to positive learning outcomes and prevent the avoidance of distress as much as possible.

Journal Reference

Rudland, J. R., Golding, C., & Wilkinson, T. J. (2019). The stress paradox: How stress can be good for learning. Medical Education, 54(1), 40–45. https://doi.org/10.1111/medu.13830 

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