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Practice Can Protect The Memory Against Stress, Study Claims

First Posted: Nov 30, 2016 03:20 AM EST
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Scientists suggest that how people learn affects how much they remember in stressful situations.
(Photo : Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Scientists from Tufts University conducted a new study claiming that learning by taking practice tests, a strategy known as retrieval practice, can protect the memory against negative effects brought about by stress.

According to Tufts Now, the experiment involved 120 students. Participants were asked to learn a set of 30 words and 30 images by looking at each item for a few seconds on a computer screen. Students also had 10 seconds to type a sentence using the item immediately after seeing it, in order to simulate note-taking.

Participants were then divided into two groups. One group studied using retrieval practice, the other using the conventional method of restudying the material. The first group took practice tests where they had to recall as many items as possible, in no particular order, while the second group studied through repetition. The items were shown to them again on the computer screen, one at a time, for a few seconds each. Students could do this repeatedly, as they had several timed periods to study.

"Typically, people under stress are less effective at retrieving information from memory. We now show for the first time that the right learning strategy, in this case, retrieval practice or taking practice tests, results in such strong memory representations that even under high levels of stress, subjects are still able to access their memories," said senior study author Ayanna Thomas, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the graduate program in psychology at Tufts.

The participants in both groups were given 24 hours to rest, after which half of the students in each group was placed in a stressful situation. These students were unexpectedly asked to solve two math problems and give a spontaneous speech with no preparation in front of two judges and three peers, all while being filmed.

During the same stress-inducing scenario, participants were given a memory test to see how many of the words or images studied the previous day they could recall. The students' memories were tested again 20 minutes later after the stressful scenario had ended. This way, the scientists could test both immediate and delayed stress responses.

Meanwhile, the rest of the participants took the same memory tests, but during and after a non-stressful task of equal length, reported Medical News Today.

Researchers found that individuals who learned a series of words and images using retrieval practice did not show impairment in memory after experiencing acute stress. However, those participants who used study practice, the conventional method of re-reading material to memorize it, remembered fewer items overall, particularly after stress.

Findings also showed that stressed individuals who used retrieval practice remembered approximately 11 items out of each set of 30 words and images, compared with 10 items remembered by non-stressed students.

Those who had used restudying practice and were stressed remembered an average of seven items, compared with the 11 items of their retrieval counterparts. Restudying participants who had not been stressed remembered only a little under nine items.

"Our results suggest that it is not necessarily a matter of how much or how long someone studies, but how they study," said Amy Smith, a graduate student in psychology at Tufts and corresponding author on the study.

"Even though previous research has shown that retrieval practice is one of the best learning strategies available, we were still surprised at how effective it was for individuals under stress. It was as if stress had no effect on their memory," Smith added. "Learning by taking tests and being forced to retrieve information over and over has a strong effect on long-term memory retention, and appears to continue to have great benefits in high-stakes, stressful situations."

The authors would like to point out, however, that individuals react differently to stressful situations, so further research is needed to expand on their results.

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