For the second problem-solving test, students were to fill in the only blank spot on a grid that had a series of shapes and symbols. They were given a list of possible solutions and asked to choose the shape or symbol that best fit with the other shapes in the grid.
Students performed better on the memory test one to two days prior to the exam, when their stress levels were presumably at their peak, and worse on the problem-solving tests.
A week after the exam, students were given a similar round of cognitive tests. This time, the students did slightly worse on the memory test, but had improved on the word and shape tests.
"There was a clear relationship between cognitive function and stress levels," Beversdorf said. "The students didn't think flexibly right before their exam, typically a time of great stress."
During acute stress which many medical students experience prior to an exam the body releases a compound called norepinephrine. Known as a "fight or flight" compound, norepinephrine allows the body to react quickly to an immediate threat.
While measuring norepinephrine levels was beyond the scope of this study, based on findings in other studies the researchers think that elevated levels of the compound prior to an exam may have helped boost students' memories.
"Even though norepinephrine may help a student recall memorized facts, it could also hinder his ability to think flexibly that is, to solve problems that require selecting one of many possibilities using associative information," Beversdorf said. "Right before the exam, students had more difficulty answering the prob
Contact: David Beversdorf
Ohio State University