Pre-test jitters make it easier to recall memorized facts, but that stress also makes it tough to solve more complex problems.
Researchers at Ohio State University gave a battery of simple cognitive tests to 19 first-year medical students one to two days before a regular classroom exam a period when they would be highly stressed. Students were also given a similar battery of tests a week after the exam, when things were less hectic.
While pre-exam stress helped students accurately recall a list of memorized numbers, they did less well on the tests that required them to consider many possibilities in order to come up with a reasonable answer. A week after the exam, the opposite was true.
"Other studies have suggested that elevated stress levels can actually improve some aspects of cognition, particularly working memory," said Jessa Alexander, a study co-author and a research assistant in neurology at Ohio State. "The results of the two problem-solving tests we administered suggested a decline in problem solving abilities that required flexible thinking."
She conducted the study with David Beversdorf, an assistant professor of neurology at Ohio State. The two presented their findings on October 25 in San Diego at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference.
"We already know how the immune and endocrine systems of healthy medical students react to stress, along with how students respond behaviorally to this kind of stress," Beversdorf said.
"But how students react cognitively has largely been ignored."
The researchers gave 19 medical students three tests each. The first test assessed short-term memory students listened as the researchers read strings of up to 9 numbers. The students were then asked to write down the exact sequence they had just heard.