Ep 14. Stress and learning with Dan Rosen
This transcript was created with speech-to-text software. It was reviewed before posting, but may contain errors. Credit to Jazmin Boisclair.
Ep 14. Stress and learning with Dan Rosen
[00:00:00] Anna Stokke: Welcome to Chalk and Talk, a podcast about education and math. I'm Anna Stokke, a math professor and your host.
You are listening to episode 14 of Chalk and Talk. I had a fantastic conversation with Dr. Dan Rosen about stress and how it impacts learning. He is a teacher and school leader with a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Oxford.
We discussed the biology of stress, the difference between anxiety and stress, factors that trigger stress for students in the classroom, timed tests and some misconceptions about stress. We also talk about practical strategies for minimizing stress in high-stakes assessments, like exams that are applicable not only to math instruction but to teaching in general.
I learned a lot from my conversation with Dr. Rosen that I will be applying in my own classes. This is an important episode for anyone who teaches and for parents too. Now, without further ado, let's get started.
I am thrilled to introduce Dr. Dan Rosen, who is joining me today from Düsseldorf in Germany. He is a teacher and Head of Secondary at St. George's, the British International School. He has a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Oxford. His undergraduate degree is in physiology and psychology. He has mainly taught biology and psychology, but he's also taught math, chemistry, and general science.
In previous roles, he was head of a biology department and Deputy Head at secondary schools in England. He blogs at musingsofadr.wordpress.com, he follows education research really closely and he's the organizer of a researchED event at his school, and I'm excited to talk to him today about stress and anxiety.
Welcome, Dan. Welcome to my podcast.
[00:02:06] Dan Rosen: Thank you very much for having me. I'm really excited to be here. Thank you.
[00:02:11] Anna Stokke: Let's start by talking a bit about your background, which is really quite interesting, and you have a Ph.D. in pharmacology. So I'm imagining that there are lots of things you could do with that. You could be a university professor or work for a pharmaceutical company or a researcher. How did you end up teaching high school?
[00:02:29] Dan Rosen: That's a really good question and a question I've asked myself often. As I was doing my master's and Ph.D., I was really lucky. I had the opportunity to give seminars and tutorials to undergraduate medics, and I kind of just really fell in love with doing that, loved my research, it was really fulfilling, and I was really happy with, with how everything went, but I just didn't love it in the same way that I loved teaching.
And I kind of finished my Ph.D. and, and thought, “Well, what am I gonna do?” The, the things you've listed were options, but actually I wanted to give teaching a go, and I was very fortunate to get an opportunity at a school and yeah, never looked back really. So started off teaching biology and then here I am a number of years later in Germany, leading a secondary school.
So yeah, realized I loved teaching and then decided to go full-on.
[00:03:25] Anna Stokke: I should mention that I came to know about your work because one of my listeners recommended that I listen to you on the podcast Thinking Deeply About Primary Education.
And so I listened, and I thought immediately, “yeah, I absolutely have to get you on to talk about test anxiety and stress and that sort of thing.” I would say over the course of my career, I've definitely noticed an uptick in the number of students who experience anxiety or, or stress often in regards to tests or maybe we just talk about it more.
I'm not, sure, but I do think it's an important thing to talk about and I'm really interested in learning more about stress and how it affects students during the various phases of learning. And I think the things that we'll talk about today, they'll apply to really any subject in teaching at any level.
So what got you interested in stress?
[00:04:18] Dan Rosen: Good question. I think similar to, to yourself, I've been obviously seen, I've seen lots more students and parents maybe because they're more aware of it or, or maybe because it is more real talking a lot more about stress and how to have stress reduction approaches and things like that. And, and so I started, I mean obviously I teach stress, I teach about the, the physiology of it when I teach biology.
And I also teach about anxiety when I teach psychology. So I feel I have probably had a headstart on most people. But I find it fascinating because actually, I think some of the research is slightly counterintuitive and, and like with many things in psychology, especially, gut reactions and kind of face value statements aren't always actually correct.
And, and like a good researcher, like a good scientist, I wanted to find out more. And so I did, and that was it really. I started kind of investigating what things could affect performance and tests via stress mechanisms, for example, is it always negative?
And then ultimately the goal would be to, to use what I've read and what I've learned to help the students in my school and potentially, students wider afield, teachers wider afield, you know, generally the education community to actually understand how we can help our students not feel stressed or, or kind of deal with that stress, really.
And so, yeah, I kind of went down a, not a rabbit hole, but I started reading quite a lot about it. And then I decided to give a presentation, a researchED on it. So I kind of had to put my money where my mouth was and, and kind of present this research in an easily digestible format so that other teachers who are not biologists and not psychologists can understand.
[00:05:58] Anna Stokke: Absolutely. And I think a lot of teachers will find it really helpful to learn about this. So, and you are a biology teacher and a, a psychology teacher. And so you mentioned that you teach about this in your classes. So can you explain for the listeners the biology of stress?
[00:06:17] Dan Rosen: Yeah, I, I'll give it a, I'll give it a good go. Essentially stress is a normal physiological response that you kind of do without thinking about it. You, you don't really have much control over it. And essentially, when you perceive something to be stressful, be that a threat or I mean, we would call it a stressor, but any kind of aspect of the environment that your brain automatically says, “Ah, this is really quite important,” or “should we be a bit scared of this?”
Or “maybe we need to really concentrate or really focus on what we're doing,” then the body's stress response kicks in, and part of it is kinda by the autonomic nervous system and part of it is this slower reaction or slower process mediated by some stress hormones. I think the first bit, first bit of the stress response, most people will be at least aware of the fight or flight kind of aspect to it, where your body gets prepared to fight or, or run away.
How it does that is by increasing your heart rate, increasing your blood pressure, you send blood to muscles, your pupils dilate, all these things that kind of prepare you to fight or run away. And your body's very good at that. It's not a good or a bad thing to have a stress response. It's just a thing that we do to prepare ourselves for important situations.
And so that's kind of a very immediate response that your body makes to prepare you to do something important. In slower time, your body also says, well, “We don’t know how long we're gonna have to stay in this state for.” And so you start to release a few hormones, the main one being cortisol, that have other effects on your body, again, preparing you to deal with whatever situation it is that you're about to face.
And, and that kind of lasts about 90 minutes, that cortisol response. And as a one-off response, all of these things are perfectly normal and absolutely fine, and they're going to help you and your body deal with whatever it is in front of you. The challenge comes when you have elevated levels of cortisol over a long period of time, and that's when we start to see real problems.
But fundamentally, the stress response is there to prepare you to fight, to run away, to deal with a problem, and it happens very quickly without you really being in control of it. What I think is really important to say at this stage is though, is that no two people's stress response is the same. There's different layers to this, and all of them can be very, very different between individuals.
So, for example, two of us here today, we could look at a situation or perceive a stimulus and you might be stressed by it, but I might not be. So your stress response is gonna kick in, mine's not. So we've already got a difference there between us. Even if we did both perceive the stimulus to be really stressful and, and caused us to start our stress response, you may release more hormones than I might release or your speed at which you kind of send blood to your muscles might be faster than my speed.
Things like that. There are huge differences between individuals. And then lastly, even if we did all that the same, we could respond differently to cortisol and there's loads of studies to show that we all respond differently to different levels of cortisol.
It's a huge variety of responses. And I think this is where we get to the challenge is that whilst the general stress response is the same across all humans, actually, the way in which we interpret stress, there's, there's different points at which there could be huge variety. And therefore saying that everything is stressful or nothing is stressful or the same things cause the same stress response isn't quite correct.
And then when we get into education, that's the challenge, isn't it? Because we have 20, 30, however many children in front of us, and they're all seeing the same thing, but how they're dealing with it and the stress response could be massively different. And so it's a very simple response that your body does, but it's so varied across different people that it becomes quite complicated.
[00:10:24] Anna Stokke: That's really helpful. And absolutely, in a classroom, you see that all the time. Like some people actually just love public speaking and other people are really stressed about public speaking, for example.
I wanted to ask about stress and anxiety because we hear about stress and then we hear about anxiety, which seems much more serious. So is there a difference between stress and anxiety?
[00:10:53] Dan Rosen: Yeah, very much so. I mean, stress is typically a much shorter-term response to a stimulus. So you don't just happen to wake up and go, “Oh my God, I'm stressed.” It's something's happened in the environment to cause this stress response. There are lots of very similar symptoms potentially between stress and anxiety.
But the reality is, is that the anxiety is, is significantly more persistent. It's about excessive worrying, and it's doesn't go away even when the stressor has gone away. So, you know, I think it'd be reasonable if I saw a bear in my room right now, I'd be pretty stressed. But if we suddenly got rid of that bear, you know, for six months I'm not worrying about this bear in my room.
It's, it's just, that was a, a really scary thing, and now it's gone away. I might take steps to avoid going to places where there's lots of bears, but it's not getting me down on a day-to-day basis. I'm not thinking about it on a daily basis, and it's not causing me to have sleepless nights and sweats and, and all these things.
The difference there between stress and anxiety is kind of the persistence the duration of these symptoms and also the effects they're having on your, on your daily life. You know, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I mean, that's a, classified disorder in the DSM and also ICD and, and there's some really specific kind of physiological and, and cognitive symptoms there, whereas being stressed is about that kind of stress response to a stimulus.
And so there will be overlap, right? If someone gets stressed by, let's take an example, public speaking. Saying to someone who, “You are going to go public speaking now,” and they might get stressed and they'll have the stress response. If they just then forget about it the next day, it's not a problem, then they haven't got anxiety.
But if they go home and then, you know, for weeks on end they're worried about this speaking, then that's an anxiety issue. And so they're kindo of related, but distinct.
[00:12:45] Anna Stokke: So the difference is that anxiety is quite persistent over a long period of time. And there are lots of things that cause people stress and some of those things are completely out of our control as teachers, right? So for instance, if my student broke up with their girlfriend or something like that and that's causing them stress, there's not a lot I can do about that.
But there are things maybe in the classroom setting that would cause students stress more than other things, and maybe we can do something about those things. So what are the main factors that cause stress for students in a classroom setting?
[00:13:21] Dan Rosen: It depends on the student. That's a real cop-out answe, but the reality is that different things stress out different people. And I'm sure that in a class of 30, some will, whatever you are deciding to do on a given day, there will be some that have no issue, some that are a little bit stressed, some that are very stressed.
But I think what's really interesting is that there was a meta-analysis done by Dickerson and Kemeny in 2004, and they looked at these kind of stress exacerbators. And the, the two things they found that were most stressful for pretty much all people really is, is something called social-evaluative threat and the other is uncontrollability.
So social-evaluative threat is essentially whereby some aspect of an individual's identity. Could be judged negatively by other people. So you could think of it as kind of negative peer pressure or negative peer judgment. In the sense of actually, it's not whether they're gonna do well on public speaking or not.
It's whether people will laugh at them for being bad at public speaking. That's way more stressful than the actual act of having to talk in front of a class or the act of, you know, if you’re going to do a math test, is the math test stressful or is it the fact that they might be judged for doing badly in the math test? And so that social-evaluative threat, and I think, I think that kind of, that does have face validity to, to people. You know, we don't mind doing things at home on our own, but doing them in front of a crowd is very different.
Especially a crowd of one's peers that you like and respect. So there's certainly something in that. And then the other thing that causes stress, and this again is for adults as well, teachers probably feel this too, is this lack of control. When things are happening where people cannot do something to change that.
And that is stressful because it's kind of this helplessness whereby it doesn't matter what you do, this thing's not going away. And that, that is really stressful because you're basically at the behest of everything but yourself. And so those are the things that they found I think it was about 200 studies they looked at. Huge meta-analysis, but you know, those are the two generalizable things.
And if we then use that to break down to specific tasks, you start to see things like rather than things that might stress it out, we can think of ways in which we can reduce the stress. And so an easy one is, is getting students to write their answers on a mini whiteboard and only show the teacher and not show each other.
That's a remarkably easy way to de-stress kind of retrieval practice in the classroom because actually, if only the teacher's seeing it and the teacher's there to help me, the student's way more likely to have a go. Whereas if it's a case of “Write on a mini whiteboard, show your partner have a discussion,” suddenly we've upped that kinda threat level from our peers.
And so when we're thinking about tasks for students, it's easier to think of, “Well, how can I make it less threatening from a peer-group perspective,” is kind of what I would suggest there. And then in control, in terms of control, that's a real tough one. But again, I suppose it's about having clear and set kind of regiments and routines so that they know what's coming.
So that even if they can't influence what's happening, they at least can prepare for it.
[00:16:24] Anna Stokke: Let's move on a bit and talk about the stages of learning. I understand that the stage of learning we're at dictates whether the stress has a negative or a positive impact. In my interview with Patrice Bain, we talked a bit about the three stages of learning, which she said were encoding, storage and retrieval.
Does that sound right to you or would you classify them in a different way?
[00:16:54] Dan Rosen: I mean, encoding, storage, retrieval, I might have used the word consolidation term instead of storage, but yeah, that's, that's absolutely spot on. I'm not gonna disagree. I would also add in updating later on in terms of, if we've got a memory, we would probably update it when we get new information.
But the fundamentals of learning, I, yeah, agree. Encoding, storage, retrieval, absolutely.
[00:17:17] Anna Stokke: What impact does stress have during the encoding stage? And just to recap on that, so the encoding stage is the stage where we're trying to learn the information and commit it to long-term memory. Does that sound right?
[00:17:30] Dan Rosen: Yep, exactly. It's that kind of first stage of the learning process where we're getting it, I mean, for want of a better term, I'm sort of anxious before I say it, for getting the stuff into your brain. It sounds awfully sciency, but that's the way to think about it. We're getting that, we're get, we're taking the information from somewhere outside of us and, and getting inside of us and that an encoding phase.
This is where it gets counterintuitive. Stress is, it actually probably enhances the encoding stage. We, we see better recall when there's stress around encoding stage. It could be due to, to an increase level of arousal. But the reality is there's quite a few studies. I mean, there's a classic study by Cahill in ’94 that looked at memory of images and when you give participants propanolol, which is essentially an anti-anxiety medication they don't remember as much of a story or they don't remember as many pictures.
The picture one was a different study, but all these things are prevented if we prevent the stress response. And, I found that when I started looking at this, I was like, this is really counterintuitive that if we prevent stress, we actually kind of have a negative effect on encoding.
So I mean, as a general sum up, I would say. It's certainly not negative, which I think is the, is the counterintuitive point. Most people think, “oh, stress when we're learning is bad.” Obviously, super stress is bad, but general stress is fine. It actually probably enhances recall a bit. And I think that's, for me, that that's kind of the thing.
If teachers are gonna be aware of anything, it's don't worry about it. When they're learning things, the encoding stage you know, it's not gonna be super negative for the students to be a little bit stressed. It might even help out.
[00:19:04] Anna Stokke: That is really interesting. I wonder if it's because if you're really nervous, say about your exam, that you just start studying harder. Could it be something like that?
[00:19:17] Dan Rosen: That's, I mean, so that's interesting. So and then encoding is what kind of the first time you're gonna see it or, or when you're learning it. So I'm not sure if that, I, I haven't really thought of it in that way before. It's a really good question. My gut says it's probably more to do with the fact that you're in some way, shape or form stressed by the situation and therefore focusing your attention on what it is you have to do.
However, I don't know how you would distinguish that from someone focusing their attention because they're stressed about an upcoming exam. So I don’t know how to answer that. Yeah, could be, absolutely.
[00:19:50] Anna Stokke: Does the type of stress matter? If you got in a fight with your mother, say, and you're, you have an exam coming up like that causes you a lot of stress, right? These personal issues cause you stress. Does that kind of stress help?
[00:20:04] Dan Rosen: I don't think that will help necessarily. I mean, there was a really interesting study, the Smeets study where they looked at whether you can relate the type of stress to the thing that you're trying to learn. And they found a kind of a weak effect for that whereby the stress that you're feeling is linked to the topic that you're learning.
And that kind of does have an enhancing effect. However, I haven't seen anything that says you've had a fight with your partner, and then you go and try and learn some biology definitions. I've not seen anything that tests that specifically. But all the other things where you get students to kind of be really stressed in front of their peers and then get them to try and learn something, actually the stress helps, even if that stress isn't related to what it is they're learning.
[00:20:48] Anna Stokke: Right. And I'm definitely not advocating for people to go get in arguments with their, with their partners so that they can cause some stress so that they can do better on an exam. This is, this is very interesting. I certainly encounter a lot of students under stress when they're, they're studying and, trying to learn information.
And I often hear things like, “Well, I just have so much to do, and I don't know how I'm gonna get this all done.” And this really negative thinking. And what I always say is, “Well, it's not really gonna help you to think like that. So you should just concentrate on what you need to do and try to not think like that.”
But what do you think we should say to students when they're under stress during the encoding stage? How should we handle that as teachers?
[00:21:35] Dan Rosen: Yeah, I mean, if they're in you, in front of you, it's very difficult as on a human level to kind of ignore that. And I think that's where teachers sometimes get into this kind of sympathy, empathy kind of mix whereby it just feels wrong to kind of not hear a student telling you they're stressed.
At the same time, there's gonna be no benefit. There's gonna be very little a teacher can do to alleviate that stress. I mean, we're not trained psychologists for a start, but second of all, it takes trained psychologists ages and loads of training to be able to help people overcome significant anxiety issues.
So, for me, my advice would be to kind of lean into it and say, “Okay, well then let's, let's start the journey,” right? “You were a little bit stressed. Let's, what can we do? What can we do right here and right now? And let's use that kind of energy that you have and the kind of, to actually do something productive.”
Because otherwise, we're gonna lose time from not doing anything and the stress isn't going away. So we may, so I would say about being positively encouraging for, doing the right things, the process steps that are gonna get the students to tick off a little bit of that workload. But it's certainly not gonna harm the encoding that stress is not going to prevent people from being able to learn, which I think is a common misconception.
[00:22:45] Anna Stokke: So let's move on to retrieval. I'll try to explain this and you can rephrase or correct me. So that would be the stage where we should have already encoded. So we've maybe committed things to long-term memory and now we're trying to retrieve that information. What impact does stress have during the retrieval phase?
[00:23:08] Dan Rosen: So now stress is not good. Yeah, like you say, retrieval is, it's already, you've already learned it, it's encoded, it's stored somewhere. And, and now you're trying to recall it. So obviously a retrieval practice could be a quiz in a, in a classroom, but it could also be, you know, a high stakes exam.
And when we start to look at this stress is pretty negative. It really does inhibit recall pretty significantly. And so this is where I think there is something that needs to be done to help our students not feel that stress. Because it does prevent recall basically.
It's really, really negative. What what's interesting though is it doesn't make any difference on recognition. When you see students outside an example and they're flicking through their notes and they seem pretty happy about it, it's because the stress doesn't prevent them from recognizing what they've seen before.
What's really interesting is that it then it hits like the, the impact of the stress hits when students are trying to actively recall it, be that verbally or written or however. And so students also make it slightly worse for themselves cause they get themselves in this kinda feeling whereby they actually feel quite good as they're reading through their notes and they go, “yeah, yeah, I've seen that before.
I know that, I know that,” but actually the stress has already kicked in and, and the stress is already having its effect. So when they get into that exam room yeah, there's nothing they could have done anyway at this stage.
[00:24:26] Anna Stokke: Okay, so what can we do about this?
[00:24:29] Dan Rosen: Really good question. So there's a couple of really interesting studies on this. The retrieval practice is probably the one that's been studied the most and it sounds like everyone talks about retrieval practice as if it's kind of like the most important thing. But I think when we come to stress, it really is the best thing we can do.
And there's a couple of studies that that kind of support that there's the, there's the Agarwal study, which surveyed students and students are telling us that retrieval practice not only helps their learning, but makes them less nervous, right? So, so that's what students are telling us.
But there was an awesome study, Smith in 2016, and they looked at the effects of retrieval practice versus rereading and things like that. and it was very clear that even though the stress response was kind of the same, the students who did retrieval practice did significantly better.
So the physiological response was still there, but they were way better at recalling things, and that was in many different conditions. And it basically showed that retrieval practice prevents the effects of stress on recall. And so if there's one thing I could recommend to anyone to preventing the impact of stress on students, it's retrieval practice. Simple as that.
[00:25:41] Anna Stokke: That does sort of make sense to me because retrieval practice is going to better prepare you for the high-stakes test. It's going to prepare you better than rereading. So in math, if you're actually working through problems and you're making sure that you can do them on your own instead of reading the problems, you're going to be better prepared for a novel problem-solving situation on the test, which probably is going to alleviate the stress a bit, and then you're gonna be able to keep going.
[00:26:12] Dan Rosen: Exactly, and you know that you can do it before you walk in the exam room. It seems so obvious and yet I still see it as one of those aspects of teaching that many educators don't really use, but you're spot on. If a student can do it on their own under test conditions ish, like as in without notes and things, and they know they can do it and they've done it loads of times, then obviously they're gonna be better at doing it in the exam room.
Stress or no stress. So it's definitely the way forward.
[00:26:37] Anna Stokke: The problem sometimes is getting students to do the retrieval practice. At the university level, for instance, when students are very independent, and we're not sitting there watching them do their problems, say, it can be hard to get them to actually do the retrieval practice on their own.
You have to maybe associate some marks to it or something like that. What kind of retrieval practice does it have to be? Does it have to be the kind of retrieval practice where it's almost like a testing setting except low-stakes? Or can it just be, you know, “here, work through these problems for practice”?
What kind of retrieval practice should it be?
[00:27:13] Dan Rosen: I think that depends on the subject, really. I mean, I think maths math teachers generally in schools tend to do retrieval practice without even realizing it's retrieval practice. They do, all kinds of things from all kinds of topics from previous sessions. The honest answer is I imagine that any retrieval practice is good retrieval practice.
What I would say is, if you make it low stakes in a classroom, that's also gonna have the added benefit of normalizing it and making it less - if you did it in a kind of a self-assessment way rather than a peer assessment way, we're gonna take away that social-evaluative threat, and we can give students control over it by telling them what we're gonna do.
So there's loads of ways you can utilize retrieval practice and make it even better for reducing stress or the impacts of stress, shall I say. The Smith study was fairly straightforward in terms of the retrieval practice that they did. It was about remembering words and images.
We're not talking complex retrieval, but my gut would say that there's no reason why any retrieval wouldn't be valuable.
[00:28:11] Anna Stokke: So if my students have a big final exam, I would want to make sure I have lots of low-stakes retrieval practice prior to that. Well, it does two things. It prepares them for the material on the test, but it also is going to reduce their stress when they go to write the test.
[00:28:30] Dan Rosen: Exactly. Double whammy.
[00:28:31] Anna Stokke: What about test anxiety? That's a completely different thing. Is that correct?
[00:28:36] Dan Rosen: Test anxiety I don't think technically exists at the moment. I think it falls under Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That would be anxiety about tests or whatever it is, a math test specifically. That is, that it would be very specific to a student. And for me that is a very distinct difference between that and being stressed about a math test.
We're talking about, you know, long, long-term persistent worries, sleepless nights. I mean, if you can look at the DSM criteria, I don’t know what you use in Canada. I mean, you're looking at restlessness, fatiguability, problems concentrating, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, you know, distressing, functioning, inability to manage worry and things like that, whereby that's not just, “Oh, this mass test is an issue tomorrow.”
This is a, a long-term kind of ongoing problem whereby the, even the thought of doing a mass test is getting in the way of someone's everyday life. So that's what Generalized Anxiety Disorder would be if someone has that about a test. I don't know whether the people that are saying I have test anxiety mean that, cause that, from what I see in schools, that's not the case.
They're just worried about this test. And don't get me wrong. That anxiety and that worry is real, of course is real. Those students are feeling that, but I don't think it's quite the same as saying they've got Generalized Anxiety Disorder about tests.
[00:29:56] Anna Stokke: Yeah. Do you think these two ideas sometimes get conflated that sometimes people are talking about stress that students face before tests, which is somewhat normal, right? I mean, we do, we do get stressed before any situation like that, not an actual diagnosis of test anxiety.
[00:30:18] Dan Rosen: 100%. I mean, we see it with depression too. People say, “I'm feeling a bit depressed today.” There's never been a worse sentence about depression. You don't feel a bit depressed on a random day. That's not what depression is. And people who've experienced depression will attest to that, and I think it's the same with anxiety.
When people have diagnosed anxiety disorder, That's very, very, very, very different to what we see when people are stressed about tests. And I think it does a disservice to psychologists, psychiatrists, but also patients with, with those disorders because I don't think that people really have an understanding of, of what that extreme is and can be.
And that is not the same as I'm worried about my test tomorrow. I might not sleep well tonight, but actually, after the test I go back to being absolutely fine. Those are very, very different things. I think it's a good thing that people are more aware about mental health issues. That's absolutely fantastic.
But there's a reason why doctors and psychiatrists train for a long period of time, and there's so much to learn that, that it's not a case of, you know, going on Wikipedia and going, “Oh yeah, I've got these symptoms,” and then diagnosing oneself. I think that's a challenge that we're facing.
[00:31:28] Anna Stokke: Yeah, I think so too. And I think sometimes the stress that students experience before they write tests. It's sometimes used even as an excuse for eliminating tests and exams. These arguments that tests and final exams cause students a lot of stress, so let's eliminate final exams.
What do you think about that? I mean, that would be a way to eliminate anxiety, test anxiety, right? We could just eliminate tests altogether.
[00:31:56] Dan Rosen: Except I don't think it does because at some point the student, so this, and this is where we get to, you know, construct validity, right? So what do we mean by test anxiety and what do we mean by, you know, specifically math test anxiety?
And I'll use it as a really easy example. Do we mean math test anxiety would suggest to me that any aspect of maths that you're gonna test a student on is gonna cause them all kinds of really, really, troubling, distressing aspects for a prolonged period of time.
But what if that test is with a calculator and you're doing basic addition? I, I think no one is going to be claiming that that is the sort of thing, except where do we pitch that level? Because for a young child, simple addition with a calculator is still really stressful. But for, you know, an adult who has passed their 16-year-old maths exam, that's not stressful.
So we've already got into this problem of what do we even mean by math test anxiety? So, so there's the first problem. But the other problem is, is does removing tests full stop, remove test anxiety? Because how do you know if someone's learned something? That's the fundamental question here. So anyone I've seen kind of saying we need to get rid of tests.
Either says we need to do coursework or we need to do continuous assessment, except if there's continuous assessment, we've still got the assessments, the tests are still there, so you haven't removed that aspect. And if you're talking about coursework, that's still a test. It, it might, you might have different aspects to go with it, but you, there's still some sort of judgment being placed upon students there, especially if you do it properly and don't let them have resources and do it in a classroom.
It suddenly becomes a very controlled environment. So from an assessment point of view, I would not get rid of assessments. that's a, a pedagogical discussion to have. But on a stress level, on an anxiety level, I don't see how that is going to remove the element that's causing the stress, which is presumably the subject material, right?
It's got to be the subject material because it can't be just be all tests in general. Because if I said, “What's your name?” That's a test, that's a question. That's not causing people's stress. So it can't just be a test. Does that make sense? Have I explained that well?
[00:33:58] Anna Stokke: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. And you're summarizing some research too that is saying that actually, we can prepare students for high-stakes tests if we do things like low-stakes retrieval. And that should technically reduce the, I don't want to use the word anxiety, but it should reduce the stress, right?
And, and life is just full of these situations where we're going to have to face test-like situations, we have to take a driver's test, for instance, they're not just gonna hand over the driver's license to you.
[00:34:31] Dan Rosen: Precisely. It'd be, it's really interesting you bring up driver's tests. I'd be interested to know the number of people that have test anxiety, that have a driver's license, for example. I, I think that'd be fascinating. I'd love to know people who have done any kind of tests that gets them in to do some form of job.
Because the logical conclusion would be is if someone's got test anxiety, they can't do any test because it's so debilitating because they've got these symptoms of, of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and they are debilitating, right? They are really, really bad. You would expect them to not have any sort of test or have passed or attempted to do any sort of tests, but I don't think that's necessarily true.
[00:35:07] Anna Stokke: Some math educators have made the claim that timed tests in math cause math anxiety. What do you think about that?
[00:35:18] Dan Rosen: Again, I would go back to the research that suggests that low-stakes retrieval practice would mean that you are getting better and less stressed about doing this again. What sort of time tests are we talking about? If I gave some 16-year-olds some multiple choice, some multiplication tests with a with a calculator and said, “You've got five minutes,” and they could easily do it, I'm not sure they're gonna be stressed about it.
So the timed element, it might be more stressful, of course it might be more stressful. I think, you know, doing anything under time pressure will, will be more stressful. But again, is it the maths or is it the time? And if you made them unlimited time tests, does that solve the problem?
Because lots of people call for that in terms of, there is an argument there to, to extend all tests, to be unlimited tests, to see what students can do. I can see that from a pedagogical point of view, but from a stress, from a stress point of view, the longer you give someone to do it, the more you are gonna have to expect from them and the more stressful that's going be.
So it's, my gut says that the time will add stress, but it's not an excuse, not a reason to get rid of the timed test. Because if you got rid of the timing in order to get spread of grades, in order to get differentiation of outcomes, You'd have to expect more or more people would get the same level, or you'd get this kind of binomial distribution whereby all the kids would either do it or not do it.
And then, and you haven't learned anything, you haven't gained anything. No one's understood anything more from taking that time away.
[00:36:44] Anna Stokke: And there are some things that we do need students to do quickly. So, the people that are saying they don't like timed math tests, they're probably referring to things like timetables. Making sure that kids can memorize times tables and they should be able to say their times tables really automatically.
And those things are actually really important because students need to know their times tables so that they can free up working memory to do more complex problems later.
[00:37:09] Dan Rosen: Precisely.
[00:37:10] Anna Stokke: If we eliminate that time component, students are going to have more trouble. So it's better just to get them to a point where actually they're not afraid to take the timed tests and I run a nonprofit after-school math program for grades four, five and six. And we give times table tests every single class.
So we see them once a week. We give it every single class at the beginning of the class. And it's just normal. We don't have kids upset or really stressed out about it. And so I think that's the kind of thing you're talking about, these sort of low-stakes retrieval tests. But I will say, certainly at the university level and I suspect this happens in, in high schools as well, we do have to design good tests because sometimes I think people design tests that it's just not feasible to complete that test in the time limit that the students have been given.
And I feel like that actually does add extra stress to students. What do you think about that?
[00:38:10] Dan Rosen: I think it depends on what the students are expecting, right? So I think we need to design good tests. Of course we do. I think the challenge, it depends what you are testing for. So we teach the IB Diploma and the level of math is worldwide, it is pretty good. And I'll use biology, actually.
So the standard of biology in the UK is pretty high. There are many, many schools around the world that don't really teach biology in kind of, you know, high school or, or lower than that. So relatively, if you were in a country or in a, in a school that doesn't take biology very seriously, those biology tests would look insane.
Like, and the same for some of the math tests that we see as well. They are, they look absolutely impossible, but the reality is that someone somewhere still finds that easy. And I think if we're talking about big exams for big cohorts of people across, I think it's about they have to be, there will be kids who won't be able to do large portion portions of those tests if they don't know that before they go in, that's not very fair. In your class, however, you should be able to design a test that allows students to demonstrate what they can do.
Again, if they are expecting one thing and get another thing that's awfully stressful and not very nice. So I agree with you. We've got to design tests that the students can do and have been taught. And I think again this is where retrieval practice comes in because, you know, they go into those tests knowing that you've taught them what to do and you've given them that time to practice and they know they can do it because they've done the retrieval practice.
I think suddenly stress flies away. And also, you know, everyone's working together to get these students to do these, math tests, better.
[00:39:47] Anna Stokke: Okay, so we've talked about things we can do to lessen the stress when students are writing tests so that they're more easily able to recall the information. What do we do if we're already at that point where the student's writing the test and they're panicking?
Is there anything that can be done at that point or is it too late?
[00:40:08] Dan Rosen: Unfortunately, at that particular test, it is probably quite late. There was a, there's a really interesting study by done by Schwabe and Wolf, which showed that even once the stress was gone after 90 minutes. So as in, there was no physiological sign that students were stressed, even after that, the students did worse on the recall.
And yes, it's one study, but it gives us an indication that actually, we need to prevent the students from either feeling the stress in the first place. Or make them resilient to the stress when it does happen. Because if they come to an exam, they're already flustered, it is over, the stress is going to prevent them from recalling and, and so therefore, all the work that teachers do has to be preventative in the classroom before they get to that exam hall.
Because actually there's nothing we can do to.
[00:40:58] Anna Stokke: Okay, so we're looking at preventative measures. Again, it's lots of low-stakes retrieval practice.
Let's come back to something you mentioned earlier. You talked about the main causes of stress in the classroom, and you talked about the social-evaluative threat. In other words, students being worried about looking foolish in front of their peers. What about peer assessment, does that contribute to that?
[00:41:28] Dan Rosen: I got to say something quite controversial. I, yeah, I think it does. But I think it depends on your classroom. It depends on the peer and it depends on the culture you've got too. So I think if you look at really skilled teachers who develop these wonderful cultures in a classroom where everyone just has a go because they have no fear of making a mistake because that's the culture of the classroom.
Then peer assessment's fine, right? It's, it's to be encouraged. You're going to be learning from each other is wonderful. But I think if you've got students in your class that are nervous about answering in front of their peers, if you've got students who have never done retrieval practice, who actually aren't very good at the subject and know they're not very good at the subject and also know that the person sitting next to them is really good at the subject then actually peer assessment could be really harmful.
Sorry to go slightly off point. I'm quite interested in setting as well in terms of streaming academic ability, I think you call it tracking, maybe. And they're looking, there's a really recent study that literally came out, like within the last six months or so that were showing that actually, the reason why mixed-ability classrooms are, can be worse for math outcomes is because people, the students develop a negative self-concept of themselves.
They think they're bad at math, they can see they're bad at math. They can see everyone else in the room is better than them at math, and that makes them feel worse at maths. And so that's kinda linked to the same thing. It's this, it's the kind of threat that they're gonna be embarrassed to do something in front of their peers because they feel that they're gonna be judged for being bad at this aspect of their life, which they know is really important.
And so linked to that, peer assessment can be wonderful, but from a stress point of view, the chances are, until you've got a really strong culture in your classroom, that is going to add to it because the student's probably going to want to say, “I don't know,” rather than have a go and get it wrong.
And so my advice would be from a stress point of view, let's be cautious about using peer assessment early on until we're happy and confident that our students understand why we're doing it and that it's okay to fail and that also we don’t kind of judge each other when things go wrong.
[00:43:30] Anna Stokke: Earlier, you also mentioned something about the mini whiteboard. You're practicing, you're doing retrieval practice in the class and so you're using mini whiteboards and you get the students to hold up the mini whiteboard and the teacher can see that or you can do something like iClickers, we do this type of thing, right?
And that is quite different than actually having students up at the board working together. And one student's got to go up there and show their work. And it's interesting you mentioned that because that is a very common technique that is used in Canadian classrooms right now. Building thinking classrooms.
You may have heard of the non-permanent vertical learning surfaces. And this is exactly what, what I think about is that's probably really stressful for some of those kids that aren't as fast as the other kids and they've got to go up on the board and write out their solutions to the problems. So that kind of ties into what you were saying, right?
[00:44:27] Dan Rosen: Yeah, absolutely. I couldn't think of anything worse for myself than going up to a board to show a class of my peers something that I know I'm not very good at and I've probably got wrong, but still doing it. I think that's, that's incredibly stressful. And, and the thought of doing it, I'd properly rather say, I don't know.
And I think the challenge is, is that you end up having this divided classroom whereby all the kids that are confident and amazing will go up and do it, but that instantly exacerbates the issue for those that can't. And so there's obviously a time and a place for getting students to model on the board.
And I think, again, with a strong culture that can be okay, but I don't know if you're gonna model a right answer on the board, my personal opinion would be the teacher does it right, you're gonna get it right. You want to give them an exemplar. I'm not sure what the added benefit is of getting a student to do it at the board because they could easily do it at their desks with a mini whiteboard.
So what is it you are trying to get them to do? And is it worth the stress levels that you're going to cause in those students?
[00:45:26] Anna Stokke: And I think a lot of times these fads, I would call them in education, they really favour extroverts. I think extroverts and people who are really good at what they're doing, they love to get up and show off their work and that sort of thing.
But then we're leaving behind those people for whom this is really uncomfortable. And it's questionable whether it benefits learning in the first place, right? It likely doesn't so what's the point?
[00:45:52] Dan Rosen: Exactly. And I think that's where I would get to is, is what are you trying, what are you trying for the students to learn because it's not encoding because they're already showing you an answer. So what is it you're learning? If it's about public speaking, that's a different matter entirely, but then let's use something that the students feel confident in talking about.
You don't necessarily need to do that in that way to meet that. Yeah, I think, I think it's one of those kind of luxury belief kind of elements of education whereby we look at things that we want to see and like to happen.
But it, it's okay. Because the privileged people who can, who can overcome those issues by a different way for example, have tutors at home, have parents who can help them, all those sorts of things and, and who are in a situation whereby actually it doesn't matter if they get the math wrong or they don't learn the math because actually they're okay.
It's that kind of, that kind of thread that runs through education that can be quite damaging because we're making a decision based on something that actually doesn't help all of the kids learn. We're making a decision on something that we would like and hope that the kids would learn from. And I think those two are very, very different things.
[00:46:54] Anna Stokke: I wanted to ask about one other thing, and that's cold calling. I'm not a fan of cold calling myself, but I'm willing to, you know, I'm willing to listen to any evidence that that says that maybe it is beneficial. And I was sort of surprised recently and I didn't look into it closely, but I did see some discussions on Twitter about cold calling actually being beneficial to retrieval practice, but I'm doubtful.
Do you have any thoughts on that or do you know anything about the research around that?
[00:47:24] Dan Rosen: The key for cold calling is that everybody is having to think. So if you do hands up, or, or some bearing thereof, or you know, there's a high chance that, if you don't, if a student doesn't know the answer, they don't even have to think about the answer, because they know they're not going to get picked on.
So cold calling is useful because it means that every student should be expecting to be asked. Therefore, every student should be expected to think. Therefore, students are working hard even if they're not picked on, which I think is the benefit. There's loads and loads of, people that do it to good effect. And I think for me, if we come back to the stress element, I think it's one of those things whereby it needs to be done with that culture that you have within the class.
And, and people would argue that you use cold calling to build that culture because then the teacher is in control of that kind of social-evaluative threat. You know, if a student doesn't answer well, you can ask them something, a follow-up question to get them to show they can succeed. The teacher can choose who they're asking so that they know they're asking someone who's got the right answer on their mini whiteboard, for example.
I, I think there are, there are benefits to cold calling. It depends I think on what you are, what questions you're asking. I do see the benefit in making students think and increasing that ratio of thinking or the ratio of students thinking to not thinking, I think that's important.
But from a stress point of view, you got to be mindful of the culture in your classroom and how the students respond to that. Again, I know there are loads of teachers who go, “Well, you're stressing that kid out massively.” But I also don’t know of any teacher that if they knew that, would then continue to persist in causing that child stress.
So I think it's probably a halfway house on that one.
[00:48:59] Anna Stokke: So the idea then is that sometimes when we're doing retrieval practice in the class, I put a problem up on the board, and I say to my class, who knows the answer to this problem? There's a lot of people in the class, they just don't need to think because they know that there's the kid that's going answer the question.
So cold calling students all have to think because they could be called on at any time. But there are other ways, there are other ways we could do that too without causing the stress, right? Like the mini whiteboards. Things like mini quizzes.
[00:49:31] Dan Rosen: Yeah, exactly.
[00:49:32] Anna Stokke: And it's more of a personal thing. You're not having to show everybody or you're not getting called out front of everybody in class.
And in terms of the control piece as the other thing that is more likely to cause stress in the classroom. What can people do with that bit?
[00:49:51] Dan Rosen: Yeah, that's, it's really interesting. So I thought a lot about this when I was doing the research, and I think for me, this is a, is almost a school-based approach in the sense of what's really stressful for students, and they'll tell you this quite openly and honestly, is when they go into classroom X and the rules are whatever they are, and go into classroom Y, and the rules are totally different. Actually, in classroom Y with a different teacher, the rules are different again.
And that's hugely stressful because they've got to remember what the rules were, for this particular given. And then they're also stressed because they know if they get the rule, if they break the rules, even if they didn't know it, then they're, then there's, they're in trouble and things like that. So, what we can do as schools, or, or institutions rather and, or, or within the classroom, is making sure that we're very clear about what behaviours lead to what consequences, be they positive or negative, Because boundaries and, and kind of clear guidelines are really de-stressing.
And I know there's lots of educators and non-educators out there that don't like some of the strict rules that some schools have. But it's interesting that those people never want those strict rules removed from, you know, in really other places like hospitals and airports and things like that. Because, when you're in a new in place where there's lots of people, actually rules are what help de-stress it.
When the students know what they're expecting, they know, “If I do this, then this happens.” That actually, that is really comforting because, I mean, students have agency, right? They can decide what they do, and if they know whatever they do and what the consequence is, then they make it with full information.
What's stressful is when they do something and they get a different response from a different teacher, even though the other teacher said it was okay, because that kind of feels unfair. And then you lose control. The student doesn't know how they should behave cause I don’t know, “What if I do this behaviour well, what's the consequence?”
And so, that's really, really important. I think consistent consequences. And then the, the other thing is, it’s giving students that, that kind of knowledge that they can control what they do in preparation for things. And so things like mocks. I know that some, I’m not talking about the validity of the assessment data, but the, the whole aspect of the mock process. You know, getting students to have a mock timetable so they have to plan their revision and going into the exam hall and having, you know, making sure they don't have phones, blah, blah, blah, all of that.
That's a habit, right? And then those habits become second nature. And the first time any student walks into an exam hall is super stressful. Once you've done it for the 50th time, it's, it's a breeze. And I think it's, it is really useful for schools to put students in those positions so that the first time they hit that stress, even the third or fourth or 10th time they hit the stress, it's in a safe environment where it doesn't really matter.
And I think that's where you end up with school policies helping students get that control. Because they know what they're doing when they're doing it and they've been there before the real thing.
[00:52:40] Anna Stokke: I've learned a lot today. Okay, so first, let's summarize. During the encoding process, stress can be helpful, so we don't need to worry about that, right? We, if our students are, are telling us they're really stressed during the encoding process, you know what? It's probably actually helping them.
[00:52:57] Dan Rosen: Yep.
[00:52:58] Anna Stokke: However, during the retrieval phase, stress actually isn't that helpful and we want to work on lots of low-stakes retrieval practice so that the student is more prepared for that high-stakes assessment.
[00:53:13] Dan Rosen: Yeah.
[00:53:14] Anna Stokke: And also just alleviating the things in the classroom that are more likely to cause students stress, right?
[00:53:22] Dan Rosen: Yep, absolutely. Spot on. It's a wonderful summary of our entire discussion.
[00:53:26] Anna Stokke: That was a great discussion! So do you have any final advice for teachers? So let's say you're talking to a new teacher. What advice would you give the new teacher?
[00:53:36] Dan Rosen: I would say, certainly low stakes retrieval practice and loads of it would be my first piece of advice if we're worried about stress. My second piece of advice would be to not worry about it because the chances are, you have very little influence over their externalities of it. It's not going to make any difference to the encoding process.
And if you are already doing retrieval practice, you're taking care of the retrieval process. So I would say low-stakes retrieval practice, loads of it, and then don't worry about the rest of it.
[00:54:05] Anna Stokke: Oh, that's great. Thank you so much for joining me today. I really enjoyed talking to you.
[00:54:10] Dan Rosen: No worries. Thank you very much for having me. It's been an absolute honour and a pleasure. Thank you.
[00:54:15] Anna Stokke: I hope you enjoyed today's episode of Chalk and Talk. Please go ahead and follow on your favourite podcast app so you can get new episodes delivered as they become available. You can follow me on Twitter for notifications or check out my website annastokke.com for more information. This podcast received funding through a University of Winnipeg Knowledge Mobilization and Community Impact grant funded through the Anthony Swaity Knowledge Impact Fund.