Give an example of how the chemical Cortisol (Memory Stress) can affect memory through the process of forming a memory. Discuss how this chemical within the brain affects learning and memory. Provide a brief summary which includes an example of how this chemical can hinder or enhance learning. What activity or strategy can be used in the classroom to increase or decrease this chemical within the brain to support learning?
Cortisol (stress) interferes with short-term memory formation.
Cortisol is an indicator that a person is stressed. When a child or person is stressed, cortisol and other stress hormones are secreted by the body as part of our body’s fight or flight response. You are supposed to either run or stay there and fight. You are not supposed to learn. Unfortunately, if we are in this situation too often, and our bodies secrete too much cortisol, it can damage memory (and other functions of the body).
The only way that cortisol might enhance learning is that you might be more likely to remember a very exciting situation, if it was a good kind of exciting and not a scary kind of exciting. There are some good kinds of stress, such as games and performances, where we can actually help children learn from experiences and manage the stress they feel. However, we need to be very careful about how we put them in these situations and make sure that we know that they can handle it.
Stress can have a very negative effect on memory formation and learning when it is a negative stress. When children are bullied or scared, or feel unsafe, they cannot learn. Consider a child who worries about being punished for getting a wrong answer, to the point of always being afraid to try. This child will not be able to form new memories because of the cortisol flowing through his body. In order to teach him, we need to show him that it is okay to make mistakes.
To create a stress-free learning environment, teachers must be positive role models themselves and avoid yelling and fear-driven tactics. They must teach their students about the negative consequences of bullying, and managing stress.
Teachers are very stressed themselves today, and in an environment of high-stakes testing, they really need to find ways to avoid passing that stress on to their students. We hear stories of even the youngest studies vomiting on standardized tests. There is a lot of pressure out there. Teachers need to help students learn to manage it, so that everyone can be healthy and learn.