Earlier this week, a new paper by neuroscientists at Bristol University was covered across several media outlets. Very quickly, a common thread began to emerge through the headlines: “Stress can help when studying for exams” reported the Daily Telegraph; “Last-minute exam stress can actually help students to form stronger memories” said the Daily Mail; “Studying while under stress helps with retention of information” declared the Ottawa Citizen. As one, journalists helpfully teased out the details. “Studying for tests at the last minute in a stressed-out state might be the best way to learn,” explained the prestigious news agency, UPI. “It runs counter to all the received wisdom about revision”, noted the Daily Mail, “But scientists say last-minute cramming could actually be better than spending months swotting up for exams.” The lead researcher himself was called upon to elaborate: according to the Mail, the researcher said “that the findings suggest students’ learning could actually be improved by studying when feeling the pressure of a deadline.”
At this time of year, thousands of students in universities and secondary schools are either in the throes of doing exams or enduring the anxiety of finalizing their preparations for them. So new research on the psychological stress of academic studying and the unexpected usefulness of last-minute cramming might be seen as particularly timely. Except, that is, for one small problem. The research in question has absolutely nothing to do with the stress of academic studying. It also has absolutely nothing to do with the unexpected usefulness of cramming. In fact, the research looks not at students at all, but at rats, mice, and other animals; and examines not the stress of academic studying, but experimental stressors such as being forced to swim in a water maze or having an electric shock applied to the foot.
Now, while I am aware that universities are always inclined toward broadening their assessment methods, I am unaware of any university that incorporates electric foot shocks or the Morris water maze test into its assessment strategy. At least not yet… Continue reading “It’s true, college is a rat race”