Juggling study ties stress levels to competitive learning environment

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LAWRENCE — Learning a new skill can be stressful enough on its own. Research by a University of Kansas doctoral student has shown that learning a new skill — juggling, in this case — in an ego-driven, non-nurturing environment can elevate physiological stress levels that can be dangerous to health and emotional well-being.

Candace Hogue, a first-year doctoral student, led an experiment for her master’s thesis at KU in which she and collaborators taught more than 100 student volunteers to juggle in two different environments. She measured participants’ cortisol, a naturally occurring chemical that can cause physiological harm at elevated levels, before and after their lessons.

Participants took part in either an ego-involving climate, in which outperforming each other was encouraged, participants were ranked on skill level, and success was defined as outperforming others; or a caring, task-involved climate in which instructors praised effort, focused on personal improvement and nurtured a sense of belonging.

“We chose juggling because it evens the playing field,” Hogue said. “It’s not automatic for a natural athlete, and it’s not physically demanding. If you’re highly physically active, cortisol levels will naturally rise.”

Hogue found that participants in the ego-driven group had much higher cortisol measurements compared to their baseline readings, while those in the caring-task environment had decreases in their levels. Cortisol levels were checked with an oral swab both before and after instructional sessions. Caring-task involving participants not only had lower cortisol levels, but a larger percentage of the group picked up the new skill.

The research is based on achievement goal perspective theory, which studies the influence of a motivational climate in achievement-based settings such as a sport or classroom. A good deal of research has examined psychological and behavioral responses of people learning a skill in each of the aforementioned environments, but very little has looked at the physiological response, as Hogue’s work did. In recognition of her research contribution, the Association for Applied Sport Psychology presented her with its Master Thesis Award. She also received the KU School of Education Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award.

Hogue, a native of Overland Park and graduate of Blue Valley Northwest High School, worked closely with adviser Mary Fry, associate professor of health, sport and exercise science.

“Previous research has revealed the psychological benefits of creating a positive and supportive environment in physical activity settings that focus individuals on their personal effort and improvement,” Fry said. “Candace's study has extended prior research by linking this positive climate to more adaptive physiological responses. Further, her results revealed that a negative learning environment can result in participants experiencing a heightened physiological stress response, and over time such a response could be detrimental. Candace is a pleasure to work with. She is a bright student who is doing high quality work and is developing the capacity to ask very interesting and relevant research questions, and design research studies to address these questions.”

Understanding the connection between learning climates and elevated cortisol levels is significant because elevated cortisol can have ill effects on health and emotional well-being and can be especially detrimental to athletes. Research has shown that elevated cortisol hinders performance and recovery from exercise. In terms of emotional well-being, participants in the ego-involved climate showed more feelings of shame and embarrassment when they didn’t perform as well as their peers, while those in the caring-task climate showed higher levels of effort and enjoyment.

Hogue hopes to work as a college professor upon completing her doctorate and continue her research in related fields. She says she hopes her findings not only add to academic knowledge but also help convince coaches and educators to establish positive environments for those they are teaching.

“There are a lot of coaches who establish that ego-involved climate, and I genuinely think they are trying to help,” Hogue said. “But if they can see research shows that a positive environment is better for both well-being and education, hopefully more people will adopt that approach.”

Wed, 12/05/2012


Mike Krings

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