Stress and Academic Performance: a student research project

By Kathleen Carino, a 2013 graduate of Eastern Technical High School and a  UMBC freshman

Background: The first BCPS Student Research Symposium, held in May 2013, featured presentations and poster sessions showcasing the results of yearlong independent research projects conducted by 25 students from Dundalk, Eastern Technical, Loch Raven, Parkville, Perry Hall, Randallstown and Towson high schools. The student researchers tackled a wide range of topics related to the arts, technology, diplomacy/politics, the mind/cognitive science, behavior, media, biology, education, history, disease/medicine, morality, and the environment. This blog post summarizes the research of one of the participating students.

As a result of an unpredictable economy, there has never been as much pressure for students to excel in academics, as most individuals believe that a solid educational background serves as insurance of a stable future. Because of this trend, parents feel the need to emphasize the importance of doing well in school, even though such emphasis, in reality, can have the paradoxical effect of being detrimental to students’ success. The reason? Stress.

To prove this point, I designed an experiment in which I distributed a three-part survey to students at Eastern Technical High School in order to investigate the relationship between stress levels and academic performance. The first part of the survey provided background information on the participating subjects. The second part of the survey included the Perceived Stress Scale-10, a 10-item questionnaire that asks individuals perceive the level of stress that they experience with regard to various aspects of their lives. Lastly, the third part of the survey tested subjects’ response to stress through the Simple Cognitive Test, a test developed by Dr. Nagata and his associates at the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

The data collected through the experiment confirmed several established patterns about stress. The data follows the Yerkes-Dodson law, or the inverted-U relationship, in which a low amount of stress correlates to idle cognitive function and increasing amounts of stress correlate to improved performance. However, when stress rises beyond the level for optimal performance or is prolonged, excessive glucocorticoids, chemicals released during the stress response, can damage the body and have the opposite effect in immune, neural and motor function.

The message of this study is clear: we, as a society, must re-evaluate our current education system.

testingThe United States is 25th in math, 17th in science and 12th in reading, based on international performance exams. The United States education system is highly-focused on standardized testing and homework, which can impose inordinate amounts of stress on students. The emphasis on scoring high on these assignments in order to receive acceptance to a college of a student’s choice can easily stress him or her beyond the level necessary for optimal performance.

On the other hand, the number one country in education—Finland—has a system that starkly contrasts that of the United States. High school students in Finland receive about half-an-hour of homework every night, and there are few standardized tests. Finland is first in science and close to the top in math and reading, which places the country first overall, despite the fact that the United States spends more money—$8,700 versus $7,500—per student each year. Additionally, students in Finland have less stress about paying for college because college is free and competition for college is based on specific areas of specialties (e.g. medicine, engineering, etc.). These factors combine to result in higher rates of high school and college graduation in Finland than in the United States.

Ultimately, until we discover a method for bringing predictability to the economy, our best strategy to ensure the success of students in the future is not to over-emphasize the importance of excellence in academic performance. Rather, our best strategy is to recognize the harmful effects of the stress caused by this over-emphasis on academic performance and reinvent our approach to promoting education.

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