Full disclosure: This post is a research roller coaster. Please don’t get caught up by inspiring findings part way through and completely change your courses. Read through to the end, I promise to end on a positive note.
In an ambitious multi-institution collaboration, Bridgette Martin Hard, Shannon Brady, Melissa Beers, and Jessica Hill came together to extend a reappraisal intervention to the classroom. Their study was based off of an experiment conducted by Jamieson, Mendes, Blackstock, and Schmader (2010).
In the original study (Jamieson et al., 2010), researchers had participants preparing for the GRE reappraise their feelings of physical feelings of anxiety for the test (e.g., racing heart) as a natural, positive physical response that could increase arousal and performance. Findings suggested that students in the reappraisal condition (compared to the control group) had higher scores when taking a practice GRE exam. Notably, this effect was only on the math portion- not the verbal portion of the GRE (more on that later).
This lead to a follow-up study by Brady, Hard, and Gross (2017), where the authors extended the lab-based findings to the classroom. In their study, students in an introductory psychology course at a highly selective, private university read a reappraisal message in an email the night before an exam. The goal for the study was to not reduce anxiety, as the physical response may actually boost performance, but to reduce worry, which could interfere with their cognitive performance (see PowerPoint slide from their presentation below- also shout out to Melissa Beers for letting us share these images!). First year students in the reappraisal condition had higher scores on their exam, as well as higher scores overall in the course compared to the first year students in the control group (who were sent a ‘control’ email with information about the exam). Notably, they only observed an effect for first year students. But that makes sense, students in their first year would understandably have more anxiety about exams in a college course.
1) it only worked with first year students, and
2) the study was done at a highly selective, private university, meaning their findings may not extend to other universities.
Enter the ambitious multi-institution collaboration. Which, anyone who has attempted, completed, or even thought about doing a multi-institution is aware of how difficult this is. I won’t go into detail, but one of the take-home messages from this talk was that not only do we need to do more research like this (despite the difficulties of collaborating across universities), but we need to have clear standards for conducting classroom-based research in an ethical, but methodologically valid way. IRB’s across institutions shouldn’t vary widely in what they consider ethical for SoTL research.
After the valiant collaborators established a research plan and were given the green light by the IRB, they attempted to replicate the findings of Brady, Hard, & Gross (2017) SIX TIMES. In their studies, they had two different types of reappraisal messages: one that gave a physiological explanation, and another that illustrated their message through a physical explanation.
Below is a breakdown of their findings from three different institutions (again, these images were graciously given to me by the presenters). You’ll notice that in 5 of the 6 studies, they didn’t replicate the findings. At a private, selective institution? No replication. At an open enrollment, commuter institution? No replication (despite three attempts). At a large public, selective institution? Partial replication, followed by another failed replication.
Despite their results, it is worth emphasizing the excellent methodology employed throughout these studies. As someone who has (until recently) almost exclusively conducted experimental research, it is easy to forget that findings from the lab don’t directly translate to the real world. This project was a thorough attempt at extending an intriguing lab-based finding to the classroom. I look forward to the authors' publication of these findings, as I think they are informative to both the research community, as well as educators who are looking for the solution to the ever persistent problem of testing anxiety with our students.
But Karly, you promised to end on a positive note!
OK, so extending cognitive reappraisal to the classroom didn’t help students on their exams. But metacognition might help combat some of the anxiety students experience in their classes. While at ACT's poster session, I learned about Jennifer McGee and Maria Stetson’s SoTL project using meditation to reduce math anxiety for statistics students. Remember how Jamieson, et al (2010) only found an effect for the math portion of the GRE? Maybe students' anxiety about math outweigh their anxiety for other topics, such as an introductory psychology courses.
In McGee and Stetson’s study, students either received guided meditation at the beginning of class (experimental condition), or asked questions for 5 minutes (control condition). Math anxiety was measured in the first week of the semester, then again in the last week of the semester. Comparing their pre- and post-scores, both groups showed an overall decrease in math anxiety over the course of the semester (makes sense). However, the students in the experimental condition had a significantly greater reduction in math anxiety at the end of the semester, compared to the control group. Future studies should investigate if this reduction in self-reported anxiety is also related to improved grade outcomes.
Like I said, this post was an emotional research roller coaster, right? It may be that the reappraisal message isn’t effective for intro psychology students, but it may benefit students in an introductory math or statistics course. Or maybe instead of a reappraisal message, future studies should focus on metacognitive interventions to reduce worry and improve performance. But, those same metacognitive interventions may reduce the physical anxiety (which, if you remember from above, can benefit performance). There are many avenues for future research projects. Let us know if you are tackling any of these questions in your own SoTL projects!
Keep a look out for more posts reviewing Jen and my's experience at STP's ACT this year! Also, if you missed them, check out Jen's posts from earlier this week, where she discusses the future of SoTL research and some new teaching resources we learned about at ACT.
Written by Karly Schleicher