The Effects of Acute Stress on Executive Functioning in a School-Age Population

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Ferguson, Christina
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Mount Saint Vincent University
Acute stress appears to impact academic achievement in part by impairing executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive processes that help to control our attention, working memory, planning and organizing skills. Researchers investigated the effect of increased stress during working memory performance in male and female grade 11 students. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: a psychosocial stress (experimental) group and a non-stress (control) group. Attempts to induce acute stress for participants in the experimental group were made via instructions from the Trier Social Stress Test and physiological responses to stress were measured by pulse (beats per minute). Participants completed two tasks measuring their working memory function: Digit Span and Symbol-Digit Modalities Test. Based on the literature, we hypothesized that increased stress would impair working memory performance. No significant differences were found for performance on Digit Span tasks between the control and experimental group. However, a moderate effect size for performance on Digit Span-Backward was noted. Additionally, a moderate effect size was indicated for baseline (pre-test) heart rate. Results indicated significant differences for performance on Digit Span-Forward between males and females. Finally, strong positive correlations were found for participants in the experimental group between trait anxiety and Digit Span-Forward, as well as between state and trait anxiety scores. These findings are consistent with the Yerkes-Dodson Law, indicating students who experience a mild stressor and have higher trait anxiety are more likely to achieve an optimal level of success.
Acute stress, academic achievement, executive functions