A recent study has pointed out that success or failure for students at school is dependant on how effectively they learn to cope with stress.
The new study explores the topic of performance failure in math and show, for the first time, that there is a critical connection between working memory, math anxiety and salivary cortisol.
Working memory is the mental reserve that people use to process information and figure out solutions during tests.
Math anxiety is fear or apprehension when just thinking about taking a math test.
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland and associated with stress-related changes in the body; it is often referred to as the "stress hormone."
"We found that cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, can either be tied to a student's poor performance on a math test or contribute to success, depending on the frame of mind of the student going into the test," said Sian Beilock, associate professor in psychology at UChicago.
Beilock and her team tested 73 undergraduate students to determine their working memory capacities and their level of math anxiety.
They also measured cortisol levels (via a saliva sample) before and after a stressful math test.
Among students with low working memories, there was little difference in performance related to either cortisol production or math anxiety, the study found.
Among people with large working memories, those who were typically the most talented, rising cortisol either led to a performance boost or a performance flop - depending on whether they were already anxious about math.
For students without a fear of math, the more their cortisol increased during the test, the better they performed - for these confident students, the body's response to stress actually pushed them to greater heights.
In contrast, for students with more anxiety about math, surging cortisol was tied to poor performance.
"Under stress, we have a variety of bodily reactions; how we interpret these reactions predicts whether we will choke or thrive under pressure," Beilock said.
"If a student interprets their physiological response as a sign they are about to fail, they will. And, when taking a math test, students anxious about math are likely to do this. But the same physiological response can also be linked to success if a student's outlook is positive," she further explained.
In other words, a student's perspective can determine success or failure.
The study was published in the current issue of the journal Emotion.