Skip Navigation
Funding Opportunities | Search Funded Research Grants and Contracts

IES Grant

Title: Exploring Stress Responses in the Classroom and Reappraising Stress to Facilitate Academic Performance
Center: NCER Year: 2015
Principal Investigator: Jamieson, Jeremy Awardee: University of Rochester
Program: Postsecondary and Adult Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (9/1/2015- 8/31/2019) Award Amount: $1,015,019
Type: Exploration Award Number: R305A150036

Purpose: In this study, researchers explored psychological and biological factors underlying the mathematics performance for community college students and developmental education students. Researchers explored how developmental education math students' interpretations of stress, beliefs about intellect, and math anxiety influence their mathematics performance. Although many postsecondary students enrolled in community college developmental math courses struggle to succeed, little research has examined the possible psychological causes for why they are struggling. The research team addressed this gap by exploring the relationships among students' stress responses (for example, physiological responses and interpretations of stress), beliefs about intellect, math anxiety (that is, negative emotional reactions to math), and mathematics performance.

Project Activities: Researchers explored the psychological and physical mechanisms that may influence community college math students' classroom performance. In particular, they focused on math anxiety and stress processes, including both physiological markers of stress and how students perceive stressors. To explore these factors, they collected saliva samples tested for stress hormones, data on students' beliefs about intelligence (namely, whether it is stable or can be improved), and math anxiety, exam preparation behaviors (such as time spent studying), and exam scores/class grades/course retention. They also explored whether students' appraisals of stress (namely students' perceptions of situational demands relative to their available coping resources) can be changed to promote stress resilience and promote academic achievement.

WWC Review: Data from the current project are currently under review by the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC).

Key Outcomes: The main findings of this exploratory study are as follows:

  • Negative perceptions of stress contribute to explaining how math anxiety impairs exam performance.
  • Informing students that stress responses can be functional and aid performance before they took an exam led to reductions in anxiety, a healthier pattern of hormone responses, and improved exam performance.
  • The reappraisal manipulation improved downstream outcomes directly by changing students' perceptions of their ability to cope with stressful exam situations.

Their research found that the way students appraise stress during exams explains why math anxiety negatively impacts academic performance outcomes. The research also found that an experimental manipulation that presents stress responses as a tool to help improve performance (rather than typical "stress is bad" conceptualizations) led to improvements in how students perceived stress during exams, which then fed-forward to improve their exam performance. These data have the potential to inform the development of new instructional practices or curricula intended to help postsecondary developmental math students succeed in mathematics courses.


  • The researchers produced preliminary evidence about how stress, math anxiety, and beliefs are related to developmental students' math performance.
  • The researchers also produced peer-reviewed publications.
  • After final analyses are completed by the research team, all data will be made publicly available on the PI's lab website:

Structured Abstract

Setting: The study was conducted in community colleges in Ohio.

Sample: Over the course of this research, 478 community college students enrolled in math courses participated. Of the participating students, 220 identified as Black/African-American, 193 as White/Caucasian, 33 Latinx, 26 Asian, 6 Mixed/Other; 288 were female and 190 male; and the average age was 24 (range: 14- to 60-years old). Roughly, and 81 percent reporting being low in socioeconomic status (bottom two quintiles).

Malleable Factor: Math anxiety correlates with poor test performance and grades. The researchers proposed that this anxiety, when combined with stressful situations, may explain why students might struggle in courses. For example, students must harness resources to address the demands of taking an exam. Students that have high math anxiety may perceive that they do not possess the necessary resources (skills, knowledge, ability, etc.) to meet the demands of the exam situation experience a negative stress response aimed at promoting avoidance behaviors. However, if students can reframe their stress responses as tools that help them perform — for instance, by delivering more blood to the brain — they are more likely to perceive they possess sufficient resources to meet the demands of the exam situation and exhibit a "good" stress response that allows students to engage with the exam instead of withdrawing due to anxiety. Thus, reappraising the stress response itself as a coping resource has the potential to attenuate math anxiety and improve academic outcomes in community college students.

Research Design and Methods: Each semester over the course of the 4-year study, the researchers collected baseline physiological (salvia samples) and psychological data from participating students during the first weeks of the course. This information allowed them to track responses to subsequent stressful exam situations. Researchers collected self-reported measures on implicit theories of intelligence (beliefs about intelligence is fixed or can grow), math histories (such as past courses), and math anxiety, stress appraisals (perceptions of coping resources relative to task demands), and exam preparatory behaviors (procrastination and performance goals) throughout the semester. They also collected and analyzed students' saliva samples prior to Exams 1, 2, and 3 to track neuroendocrine responses (cortisol and testosterone). The researchers used course retention, exam scores, and final course grades as the academic outcomes of interest.

Phase 1 of the study tested the correlation between the situational, psychological, and biological predictors and "real world" classroom performance to establish a link between math anxiety during exams and physiological and academic outcome. Starting in the second year of the study, the researchers began Phase 2 to determine whether stress appraisals and associated responses were malleable. In Phase 2, they randomly assigned students to a stress reappraisal condition or a non-reappraisal condition to explore if appraisals (perceptions) of stress are malleable and whether changing students' appraisals alters psychological, biological, and performance outcomes. In both conditions, students read short articles immediately prior to taking the second exam. Researchers used the second exam to allow comparisons to a "baseline" exam situation (exam 1). In the reappraisal condition, materials informed students that the stress people experience during acute performance situations like exams is not harmful but, rather, aids performance. Students internalized the message through a values-alignment approach implemented as part of reappraisal materials. In the expectancy control condition, materials suggested that the best way to perform well is to reduce stress by ignoring its source. That is, students in the control condition were encouraged to try and "put stress out of their minds," which aligns with lay conceptualizations that stress is bad for performance.

Experimental design: The study compared the outcomes of students who received instructions to either reappraise stress or to ignore stress, but due to the nature of this research design, there was not a no-treatment control condition.

Key Measures: The researchers tested saliva samples for physiological measures, focusing on cortisol and testosterone levels. They also used established, validated self-report measures to assess implicit theories, math anxiety, stress appraisals, procrastination, and performance goals. Primary academic outcome measures were students' scores on three course exams, their final course grades, and course retention. Demographic information included gender, race, and socio-economic status (self-reported).

Data Analytic Strategy: Using multilevel analyses, the research team examined math anxiety and stress appraisals as central predictors and mediators with physiological responses and exam performance as central outcomes.

Additional online resources and information: The PI's lab website highlights work being done as part of this project:

This research was also featured in a local newscast in Cleveland, OH:

Moreover, data collected as part of this project has appeared in articles from myriad publications including: The Economist, The Huffington Post, New York Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal.


Book chapter

Jamieson, J.P. & Hangen, E.J. (in press). The roles of appraisal and perception in stress responses and leveraging appraisals and mindsets to improve stress responses. In Hazlett-Stevens (Ed.). Biopsychosocial Factors in Stress Reactivity and Mindfulness Approaches to Stress Reduction. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Jamieson, J.P. (2017). Challenge and threat appraisals. In A. Elliot, C. Dweck, and D. Yeager (Eds.). Handbook of Competence and Motivation (2nd Edition): Theory and Application. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Jamieson, J.P., & Elliot, A.J. (2017). To approach or to avoid: Integrating the BPS model of challenge and threat with theories from affective dynamics and motivation science. In G. Oettingen, T. Sevincer, & P. Gollwitzer (Eds.), The Psychology of Thinking About the Future. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Jamieson, J.P., & Hangen, E.J. (in press). Stress reappraisal: Optimizing acute stress responses in motivated performance contexts. In G. Walton & A. Crum (Eds.), Handbook of wise interventions: How social-psychological insights can help solve problems. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Crum, A.J., Jamieson, J.P., & Akinola, M. (in press). Optimizing stress: An integrated intervention for regulating stress responses. Emotion: special issue on Fundamental Questions on Emotion Regulation.

Hangen, E.J., Elliot, A.J., & Jamieson, J.P. (2019). Stress reappraisal during a mathematics competition: Testing effects on cardiovascular approach-oriented states and exploring the moderating role of gender. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 32, 95-108.

Jamieson, J. P., Crum, A. J., Goyer, J. P., Marotta, M. E., & Akinola, M. (2018). Optimizing stress responses with reappraisal and mindset interventions: An integrated model. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 31(3), 245-261.

Jamieson, J.P., Hangen, E.J., Lee, H.Y., & Yeager, D.S. (2018). Author Reply: Arousal reappraisal as an affect regulation strategy. Emotion Review, 10(1), 7476

Jamieson, J.P., Hangen, E.J., Lee, H.Y., & Yeager, D.S. (2018). Capitalizing on appraisal processes to improve affective responses to social stress. Emotion Review, 10(1), 30-39.

Jamieson, J.P., Peters, B.J., Greenwood, E.J., & Altose, A.J. (2016). Reappraising stress arousal improves performance and reduces evaluation anxiety in classroom exam situations. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(6): 579587. Full Text