BLOG 4: EMOTION IN LEARNING: Stress & Examinations

Hello fellow bloggers! Welcome to my fourth blog. We are now beginning to narrow down our blog topics and my broader topic area will be related to what effect emotions and personality have on learning. Today I’m going to address what emotions are involved in assessments, with particular reference to stress.

As put by Bower (1992): emotion is evolution’s way of giving meaning to our lives. So what is emotion? In psychology and philosophy, emotion is the generic term for subjective,conscious experience that is characterised primarily by psychophysiological expressions, biological reactions and mental states. A mood, on the other hand, is an emotional state, differing from emotions in that it is less specific and have either a positive or negative valence.

Students regularly experience a variety of stress-related situations, many of which are daily hassles relating to teachers, classmates or workload. Our educational careers also provide major life events such as the transition from school to university, building new social networks and graduation (Boekaerts, 1999). With regards to stress-related situations, assessments and examinations profoundly influence an individual’s future, regularly inducing high amounts of psychological stress.

In exam periods, a negative emotional state can be regarded as a response to the anticipation of exam stress – as it peaks before the exam – and can be down-regulated within a short timespan (Carver & Sheier, 1994). Many people only associate negative emotions with examinations (Pekrun , 1992), while there is evidence from Spangler, Pekrun Kramer and Hofmann (2010) that in addition to anxiety, the values of hope are already at a high level before the exam, indicating an anticipatory response also for this positive emotion which may provide motivational functions for the student during an exam. Their study looked into what emotions students felt before, during and after an exam, with negative emotions (hopelessness/anxiety) most prominent before exams and decreasing rapidly afterwards. Positive emotions (joy/hope) were found to increase during the exam and peak afterwards. These positive emotions can be viewed as a response to the termination of the stressful situation.


The stress system relies on two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline works in the short term while cortisol has a large momentum and works in the long term. Regarding examination stress, your parasympathetic nervous system is activated over time leading to a build up of cortisol. In the study by Spangler et al, students with high trait anxiety and hopelessness also had high cortisol responses. Whereas there was a significant cortisol increase during the exam in highly anxious students, a significant decrease was observed in low anxious students. Thus, while in low anxious individuals the adrenocortical response has already peaked before the exam, in highly anxious individuals this activation continues and reaches its peak afterwards. Adrenocortical activation seems to be regulated by the individual’s characteristics affecting emotional responses to the situation, which could provide supplementary information about emotion regulation (Hellhammer, Heib, Hubert & Rolf, 1985).

Can stress be beneficial in education?

Emotions can be a powerful tool; upon the activation of a given emotion in a given situation, a collection of memories and a repertoire of action plans will be activated. We often find that we remember unpleasant memories more readily than pleasant memories; from a biological and evolutionary point of view this makes sense, as we need to remember something that hurt or threatened us. During an examination period, the stress we feel could be put towards good revision, as the stress hormones cause changes to our brain cells that can help memories to be stored more efficiently, if only we could see it that way!

The positivity or negativity of an individual’s mindset can greatly influence how one processes information; if you are experiencing negative emotions such as anxiety it can influence how you continue to interpret information you are presented with. Regarding examinations, this negative affect could either help or prevent you from remembering information: if the stress is too great, then the brain goes into an override mode making memory formation less efficient. However, with the right amount of stress, and possibly the right mindset, stress can enhance our control of learning and the process of memory.


23 thoughts on “BLOG 4: EMOTION IN LEARNING: Stress & Examinations

  1. I find it really interesting that an individuals feelings and states of emotion change during the exam period and reflect adrenaline and cortisol levels. As you stated, greater anxiety levels occur prior to the exam itself and these, if too great, impact on performance level. The findings by Wolf, Schommer, Hellhammer, McEwen and Kirschbaum (2001) support this idea, in that a negative correlation is found between the number of words recalled in a stressful situation and cortisol levels. However something which you didn’t touch on, but is an interesting avenue to investigate… is that this correlation was only found for men! There study did not find the same relationship between memory recall and cortisol levels for women. They inferred this may suggest females are less affected by stressful situations. Further research could investigate this potential gender difference however, by testing women at different times in their menstrual cycle to see if the correlation remained stable over time.

    Wolf, O.T., Schommer, N.C., Hellhammer, D.H., McEwen, B.S., & Kirschbaum, A. (2001). The relationship between stress induced cortisol levels and memory differs between men and women. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 26, 711–720. Retrieved from:

    • With regards to your point that women may be less affected by stressful situations than men, I think it depends on what ‘sort’ of stressful situation you refer to. Rudolph (2002) found that adolescent females tend to rely on peers for emotional support and intimacy, whereas male friendships are usually based on companionship and self-disclosure. The disruptions in social networks during adolescence likely create high levels of stress within female as opposed to male relationships. Concerning how stress may affect males and females in school also brings around the point of coping styles. Dealing with the stressors of examinations can be difficult, and research from Matud (2004) suggests that women experience more chronic stress and daily stressors than do men. Women also tend to score more highly in emotional and avoidance coping styles than males who showed more emotional inhibition. Contrary to your point, one can see that examination stress may affect females more as they are also experiencing other daily stressors, making the cortisol pile up!

      • You make a really great point that different situations cause men and women to respond differently, with each relying upon different coping strategies! Stroud, Saloveyb and Epelc (2002) found exactly that; women showed higher cortisol levels for stress induced social rejection, whilst men for achievement failure situations. Therefore even though women may experience greater chronic stress as you suggested, the amount of cortisol secretion during exams is in fact greater for men, as they are more likely to be achievement orientated. Kirschbaum, Wüst and Hellhammer (1992) found when both men and women completed a mental arithmetic test in front of an audience, (I wouldn’t do that if you paid me!!!) cortisol levels were significantly higher in men. This implied they were more stressed. Therefore the disruption to social networking groups you mentioned and daily hassles, are perhaps not as influential as achievement failure is in altering cortisol levels during exams.

        Kirschbaum, C., Wüst, S., & Hellhammer, D. (1992). Consistent sex differences in cortisol responses to psychological stress.Psychosomatic Medicine, 54(6), 648-657. Retrieved from:

        Stroud, L.R., Saloveyb, P., & Epelc, E.S. (2002). Sex differences in stress responses: social rejection versus achievement stress. Biological Psychiatry, 52(4), 318–327. doi: 10.1016/S0006-3223(02)01333-1

      • An interesting point! I thought I’d look into other types of school environments when stress could affect performance. Crocker and Graham (1995) looked at how gender differences can affect coping in competitive athletes with negative and positive affect. Female and male athletes were used to report stressful performance situations, indicating appraisals related to performance goals and coping, with a lack of attainment used as a measure of stress. They found that athletes tend to use problem-focused coping strategies such as increasing effort, planning, active coping and suppression of competitive stressful activities. Interestingly they found that females use higher levels of social support and increasing effort to manage goal frustration. Males, on the other hand, experienced higher levels of positive affect, contrary to the belief that males use higher levels of problem-focused coping. This suggest that females again seek social support in response to stress, implying that they could also use social support in preparation for exams, compared with their male counterparts who tend to use problem-focused coping, but not always!

  2. It is clear to us as individuals and in the research that stress has a huge impact on us in exams. The focus seems to be mostly on the decline in performance that is found, earlier papers focusing on a deficit in retrieval (Morris, Davis & Hutchings, 1981). However as you implied, there are far more complex effects of stress and anxiety, and these not only effect recall but also encoding, and storage of the information as well. (Naveh-Benjamin, 1991). More recent research is, as you said, focusing on the learning-testing cycle, and researching preperation, performance and reflection such as Schutz & Davis (2000). This has allowed a focus on the effects, of pressure being put on before and after by teachers or grades to see how teachers can do more to help reduce anxiety while keeping performance high!

    • Forgot to put my references!

      -Morris, L. W., Davis, M. A., & Hutchings, C. H. (1981). Cognitive and emotional components of anxiety: literature review and a revised worry-emotionality scale. Journal of Educational Psychology, 73, 541–555.

      -Naveh-Benjamin, M., McKeachie, W. J., & Lin, Y. (1987). Two types of test-anxious students: support for an information processing model. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 131–136.

      -Schutz, P. A., & Davis, H. A. (2000). Emotions and self-regulation during test taking. Educational Psychologist, 35, 243–256.

      • One can understand the struggle that some teachers face, trying to keep their students work level and performance high while also trying to maintain a non-stressful environment. Most teachers tend to go for the stress option, keeping the students on their toes to make sure the workload is completed. Chemers, Hu and Garcia (2001) looked into academic self-efficacy and student performance; looking into classroom performance, personal adjustment, stress and health the researchers found that self-efficacy and optimism were strongly related to performance and adjustment, both directly through academic performance and indirectly through expectations and coping perceptions. If a teacher can bring about a working environment that provides students with optimism about the examinations they must sit, then academic performance can be lifted while reducing the level of stress that students face.

  3. This is a really interesting topic to focus your blogs on, and one I will be following a similar path too. Stress is something we all deal with throughout education, and also on a daily basis. I think it’s really important to focus on the way we deal with stress and how this may influence us. Warner (1994) stated that it is the way we deal with the stresses that can influence our perceptions of these stressors; individuals with effective coping strategies do not perceive certain things as stressful as other people do. Horobin (2001) conducted really interesting research and found that people may actually possess genes that make them susceptible to stress; however, these genes may also be responsible for what makes a person so talented in another topic.

    • That’s a great point Becky; I think it depends on what kind of stress we talk about: eustress vs distress (good stress vs bad stress). Some manageable stress can be brilliant to motivate us towards completing a task (Sedere, 2010) although most schools cause distress in children and there are many factors such as demands placed on the child by parents and school system, severe competition and fear of failure that create this distress. It’s not learner-friendly, so why do we do it to our children?

  4. I think the topic of stress in exams is a very interesting one. Research is abundant on how stress levels can not only physically affect you, but also affect your exam performance (Cassady and Johnson, 2002). I think it is all too easy to see this stress as a very bad thing, and that all should be done to avoid it, perhaps even get rid of big stressful exams. But, as you have mentioned, there are positive aspects to the stress. For example Vedhara et al (2000) found that the chemicals released in response to stress can increase short-term memory, so perhaps having a little stress would help improve your performance. I want to point out something that I find very interesting, and that is painfully overlooked when talking about exam stress; Struthers et al (2000) explains how you can learn to effectively deal with stress. Exposure to stressful exams helps you develop coping strategies, so that next time around, you can reduce your stress levels and do much better. This is where I think exam stress becomes an influential in adding ‘coping with stress’ onto your tool belt for life. Its not secret that careers and jobs are very stressful. Pressure on employees to meet deadlines etc can lead to lots of stress. But hey, dealing with exam stress has given you the tools necessary to minimise this stress. One example of a highly stressful career is being a pilot. Little et al (1990) shows how pilots face a lot of stress and work performance decreases if they don’t deal with it effectively. Damos (1996) also says how flexibility under large amounts of stress is one of the key requirements for a good pilot. Foushee (1984) explains why; many plane crashes and accidents have been caused by pilots not being able to efficiently deal with a stressful situation.
    So overall, I am aware that learning to cope with stressful exams is not the magic bullet for curing stress in all aspects of life. But I do think that it plays a very important role and can greatly aid you in learning how you can personally deal with stress.
    Cassady and Johnson (2002) (
    Vedhara et al (2000)
    Struthers et al (2000)
    Little et al (1990)
    Damos (1996)
    Foushee (1984)

    • Thanks for your comment; I think being able to deal with stress is a skill that is not taught to students, while the stressful situations are piled on. Sparks (1982) noted the educational value of high risk activities in Physical Education (P.E.) programmes. The literature suggests that giving students the opportunity to undertake high risk activities – such as kayaking and rock climbing – in conjunction with their usual activity programmes, actually produces a catharsis for students, allowing them to use stress to overcome risk-taking activities in a safe environment, therefore promoting eustress over distress. This has implications for the classroom, as students learn that they can overcome difficult tasks, hopefully reducing their overall stress level within the classroom.

  5. Your blog topic is really interesting as I am an individual who at around exam time can become extremely stressed, especially if I feel there is not enough time in the day for me to revise effectively. On such circumstances I found from my personal experience that stress actually ends up hindering my performance in comparison to when I feel prepared and my stress levels are low. So I have done a bit of research into how stress affects memory recall (a key component needed in exams).

    Elzinga, Bakker and Bremner (2005) conclude that stress induced cortisol effects the long-term consolidation of declarative memories as well as negatively impacting on memory recall through delays, these findings are further reiterated by Newcomer (1999). Furthermore, Kramer et al (2006) found that memory recall is significantly reduced under high levels of stress. However, Marin et al (2010) found that stress enhances memory recall of information reviewed prior to the stressful situation. With respect to this study, does that mean that you cannot retrieve information ‘learnt’ or revised if it was done so under stress?

    To summarise it would appear that the majority of research suggests that stress tends to hinder memory recall which can then be applied to situations such as that of exams.


    Elzinga, Bakker and Bremner (2005)

    Newcomer (1999) – Washington University School Of Medicine (1999, June 17). High Stress Hormone Levels Impair Memory. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from /releases/1999 /06/990 617072302.htm

    Marin, M., Pilgrim, K., & Lupien, S. J. (2010) Modulatory effects of stress on reactivated emotional memories. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35, 1388—1396.

    Kramer et al (2006) 2350050603/abstract

    • That’s a good point, and I can definitely understand how stress can hinder your memory. Emotionally significant experiences are usually well remembered, and the amygdala has a pivotal role in this process regarding emotion. But the efficient encoding of emotional memories can become maladaptive as severe stress often turns them into a source of chronic anxiety (Roozendaal, McEwen & Chattarji, 2009), as you say. However the stress one feels in the weeks leading up to an exam can be put towards good revision, as stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) cause changes to our brain cells that can aid memories in being stored more efficiently, as we need to remember unpleasant memories that have been a threat to us (if you can see an exam as a threat!).

  6. I think the effect of stress may differ on the stimulus context. For instance I found research that indicated that when a distressing autopsy photo was incorporated into a series of neutral holiday stimuli, the text present on the photo could affect the participants response (Kramer, Buckhout, Fox & Widman, 1991). If the image displayed the text New York Police Department (NYPD) participants had significantly reduced recall for the images, in comparison to those who saw the same image but labelled as MGM studio origin. This illustrates that something as simple as context can edit how something stressful effects us.

    Also you touch on cortisol later in the blog and I found some evidence to add. A paper I found looked at administering cortisol or a placebo to participants aged between 20 and 40 years (Buchanan & Lovallo, 2001). The participants were shown images with increasing emotional arousal. Results indicated that the participants who had received cortisol whilst observing the emotionally arousing pictures had significantly better recall in a one month follow up. The idea of cortisol increasing recall for emotionally arousing stimuli is supported with further research (Cahill, Gorski & Le, 2003). However they found that the increase in cortisol only increased consolodation for emotionally arousing stimuli and not for neutral stimuli. Neutral stimuli recall was consistent across conditions. From this research it illustrates that stress can be a positive thing and that potentially it may have no effect on neutral stimuli (in this research). However there are other factors to consider such as situation (lab experiment vs. actual exams), stimulus (text vs. images) and context (MGM vs. NYPD).


    Buchanan, T. W., & Lovallo, W. R. (2001). Enhanced memory for emotional material following stress-level cortisol treatment in humans. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 26(3), 307-317.

    Cahill, L., Gorski, L., & Le, K. (2003). Enhanced human memory consolidation with post-learning stress: Interaction with the degree of arousal at encoding.Learning & Memory, 10(4), 270-274.

    Kramer, T. H., Buckhout, R., Fox, P., Widman, E., & Tusche, B. (1991). Effects of stress on recall. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 5(6), 483-488.

    • Some great research; your point that stress can be positive but with little affect on neutral stimuli is an interesting one, as much of the content of class subjects may not have a profound affect on the student (neutral), so raised stress levels would perhaps have no effect on their recall. Using this research in the classroom in order to make boring stimuli/work more interesting could then have a massive impact on how the information is recalled later. Perhaps changing the way subjects are taught so they are presented in a way that makes an impression upon the students and engages them more directly. N.M.

  7. This is quite a discussion folks! I would like to just add that attempts (Abella & Heslin, 1991) are being made to understand why people differ so substantially in their susceptibility to stress. In Abella and Heslin’s (1991) study, they hypothesised that (a) the appraisal of a forthcoming stressful event influences the direction of emotions experienced, and (b) that the adaptiveness of a particular coping pattern is a result of how well the coping style used (i.e. active or avoidant) matches the person’s original appraisal of the situation. They found, outcome expectancies influence the tone of emotions experienced prior to an exam, and coping interacted with expectancy appraisals to affect emotions experienced after the exam. It was concluded that a flexible coping style, described by Abella and Heslin (1991) as one that is responsive to circumstantial demands and constraints, is most adaptive.

    • Thanks for your comment Chris, indeed, quite a discussion! Perhaps we can change the tone of exams, making GCSEs and A Levels etc. an opportunistic thing to take on, with students being rewarded more readily for their work, to make it a little less daunting. Obviously such award programmes are still scary to undertake, but maybe if students could be given more frequent tests instead of one-big-scary-two-hour-monster at the end of the year then it would allow individuals to take on the work at a more steady pace, decreasing stress, without them having to cram so hard for that final exam. Then, if these exams could be seen in a better light, both the coping styles could be utilised better and outcome expectancies would be higher. N.M.

  8. You’ve certainly picked a popular topic here! Stress is certainly something we can all relate to, and in some degree all experience prior to exams. However, does stress really effect performance? Personally, I would say yes, but that goes against what Kiselica et al. (1994) found.

    Their study applied stress inoculation therapy to a group of students and compared their academic performance to a control group. Although the stress inoculation group reported much lower levels of stress (which would have obviously made them feel better about the forthcoming exams), their performance levels were no different to the control group.

    Similar results (although different – bare with me, it’ll make sense in a second) were obtained in a study carried out by Akgun & Ciarrochi (2003), where it was reported that highly resourceful students were not effected by stress, and academic performance did not change. Students who were classed as ‘low resourceful’ showed what was expected – stress effected their performance and their performance suffered as a result. Maybe it was because of their low resourcefulness, not the stress, that they performed worse that the high resource group?

    Either way, I think it shows that if you prepare well, although you may feel stressed, your performance wont be affected.

    Kiselica, M. S., Baker, S. B., Thomas, R. N., & Reedy, S. (1994). Effects of stress inoculation training on anxiety, stress, and academic performance among adolescents. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 41(3), 335.

    Akgun, S., & Ciarrochi, J. (2003). Learned resourcefulness moderates the relationship between academic stress and academic performance. Educational Psychology, 23(3), 287-294.

    • Similar research to Akgun and Ciarrochi (2003) is that of Misra and McKean (2000) whose literature suggests that the tendency to structure one’s time and leisure satisfaction may be an important factor in reducing academic stress. Regarding gender differences, females had more effective time management behaviors than males, but they also experienced higher academic stress and anxiety. The males on the other hand benefited more than females from leisure activities. It could be that a person being resourceful – like you said – and engaging more frequently in both time management and leisure activities will report fewer physical and psychological symptoms of stress. The greater satisfaction with leisure activities and management that students experience, the lower their perceived academic stress will be.

  9. High levels of stress can have adverse effects on examination performance. The negative effects stress has on memory include- an interference of an individual’s ability to retrieve information and capacity to encode information (Kuhlmann, Piel & Wolf, 2005). Inability to encode information is likely to have negative effects during revision and difficulty retrieving information is likely to inhibit exam performance.

    Additionally, high levels of anxiety have been demonstrated to have detrimental effects on the components involved in working memory such as the visuo-spatial sketchpad, phonological loop, and the central executive (Lee, 1999). The visuo-spatial sketchpad is responsible for spatial and visual short term memory and the phonological loop is responsible for auditory short term memory. Both the phonological loop and visuo-spatial sketchpad are ‘slave systems’ for the central executive which links the pair together whilst controlling them (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2010). The disruption of the three components caused by high anxiety levels interrupts and impairs the transfer of information from working memory to the long term memory store and therefore has negative effects on learning.

    Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W. & Anderson, M. C. (2010). Memory. Psychology Press: New York.
    Lee, J. H. (1999). Test anxiety and working memory. Journal of Experimental Education, 67, 218-225.
    Kuhlmann, S., Piel, M., Wolf, O.T. (2005). Imparied Memory Retrieval after Psychosocial Stress in Healthy Young Men. Journal of Neuroscience, 25(11), 2977-2982.

    • Absolutely right. High levels of stress and anxiety can affect the long term memory store. Perhaps a way we can combat this disruption is to student academic self-efficacy and optimism for their workload, as these have been related to performance, both directly on academic performance and indirectly through expectations and coping perceptions, as found by Chemers, Hu and Garcia (2001). They have also been related to perceptions of stress, health, and overall satisfaction with the subject.

  10. First wow! 21 replies! I think this is because everyone has a form of stress for examinations so we can relate to it, so great topic choice! I cam across a video which highlights and supports Spangler, Pekrun Kramer and Hofmann (2010) that stress levels change after/during the exam due to expectations-

    You mention about cortisol release, Segerstrom and Miller (2006) found that fight or flight stress (adrenaline) produced beneficial immune system change too, from these stressers, however with chronic stress (such as a long period with lots of exams, or dissertation etc when cortisol is released) could cause detrimental effects to the immune system. So, I’d argue stress is not good for exams, because at which point can you say is too much?


    Spangler, Pekrun Kramer and Hofmann (2010)

    Segerstorm and Miller (2006) –

  11. Pingback: Blog Comments- 4 | Science of Education

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