Stress, Working Memory, and Reading Comprehension

How stress affects a learner's performance is a factor worth considering since teachers can sometimes intimidate a student. For example, a teacher simply standing behind a student during an exam can induce stress.  Stress occupies part of one's attention. Therefore, it is expected that the effects of stress on a student's performance are likely to depend on the difficulty of the task and the student's working memory capacity.

By focusing on reading comprehension, researchers at Kansas State University are able to decipher the effects of stress, anxiety, difficulty of task, and working memory on a student's performance. The paper published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, "The Effects of Stress on Reading: A Comparison of First-Language Versus Intermediate Second-Language Reading Comprehension", manages to untangle these various factors, providing a picture of how each affects a student's efficiency (speed) and effectiveness (accuracy).

Stress can be introduced through various means and the instance of having an evaluative instructor standing a foot behind a student is included as one of the manipulations employed to induce stress in this study. The other manipulations include the use of a video camera to film the student while taking the exam, having a student perform prior to the exam a very difficult task like reading a tongue-twisting passage in front of a camera, and stating that the videotaped performance is going to be graded by their teacher. The difficulty in task can be addressed by considering not only reading comprehension in one's native language, but also in a foreign language. The participants are all native English speakers. Therefore, for these participants, English is L1, and the foreign language used, Spanish, is considered L2. The reading comprehension exams for both English and Spanish are at the same level. Questions at the end of a reading passage either ask for a factual recall, bridging inference, or pragmatic inference. The authors provide the following example to illustrate the differences between these types of questions.

Passage: "The waiter dropped a plate. He quickly went to get a dustpan and broom."

Factual: "Who dropped a plate?" or "What did the waiter drop?"

Bridging inference: "Who is 'He' in the second sentence?"

Pragmatic inference: "Where did the plate land, and did it make a mess?"

These examples are highly informative. These demonstrate what type of inference should really be expected in reading comprehension. Inference must not be equated with guessing or reading too much between the lines. Extrapolating too much from what is stated in text is especially harmful when it comes to reading non fiction especially science literature.

Efficiency in reading comprehension can be measured by the response times and effectiveness is gauge by the number of correct responses. The results of the study are quite enlightening and are summarized below.

One of the expected outcomes is the dependence of a student's efficiency on the difficulty of the task.

Above copied from
Rai, M. K., Loschky, L. C., & Harris, R. J. (2014, August 18). The Effects of Stress on Reading:A Comparison of First-Language Versus Intermediate Second-Language ReadingComprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.
Requiring inference clearly increases the time it takes for a student to answer questions when dealing with a foreign language, but not with a native tongue. With regard to accuracy, the drop is likewise more dramatic as the questions become more difficult.

How working memory and stress affect reading comprehension apparently depends likewise on the language. With native speakers, stress exerts no dramatic effect. Students with low working memory capacity take relatively longer reaction times. Adding stress increases reaction times when working memory is low while the opposite happens in individuals with high working memory capacity. In terms of accuracy, stress does not really cause much of a difference for individuals with low working memory capacity. Stress actually affects the accuracy of individuals with high working memory capacity as these individuals try to work faster under stress. As expected, reading slower often means being more careful. With a foreign language, the scenario is quite different. Stress takes a dramatic toll especially on individuals with low working memory. These students not only take longer to read, but are likewise less accurate. Taking more time under stress strikes down both efficiency and accuracy. Those with high working memory capacity likewise take more time under stress, but are more accurate.

These findings are very important especially in the Philippines where English is not the native language yet serves as the medium of instruction in higher education. In the Philippines, English is likewise taught as a second language starting in the early years of basic education. The results of the above study on how native English speakers perform in Spanish reading comprehension under stress and increasing difficulty must be noted by English teachers in the Philippines as well as those who use English as medium of instruction.