“Thanks for the Memories, Even Though They Weren’t So Great”: The Relationship Between Chronic Stress and Working Memory in College Students

April 10, 2021   /  

Name: Carina Arnosti
Major: Psychology
Minor: Anthropology
Advisor: Dr. Nathan Foster
Second Reader: Dr. Grit Herzmann

This study examined the association between chronic stress and cognition. Specifically, this study analyzed how students’ working memory capacity may be associated to normal college stressors versus college stressors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participant stress levels were measured by asking them to reflect on a normal college semester or a semester during the COVID-19 pandemic through the use of a revised version of the College Chronic LifeStress Survey by Towbes and Cohen (1996). Participants were then asked to complete a complex working memory task called the operation span task, created by Turner and Engle (1989). Abivariate correlation analysis was used to assess the data. The results were not significant but showed that there was a negative correlation, suggesting that people who have higher stress levels trend towards having a lower working memory capacity.

Carina will be online to field comments on April 16:
8-10am EDT (PST: 1-3pm, Africa/Europe: late evening)

53 thoughts on ““Thanks for the Memories, Even Though They Weren’t So Great”: The Relationship Between Chronic Stress and Working Memory in College Students”

  1. Carina, congratulations on your I.S. and upcoming graduation!! I wish you smooth sailing on your journey after Wooster, as you enter the next chapter in your life.

  2. Hi Carina – very timely project !
    Can you describe the operation span task, for those of us who aren’t familiar with it?
    Also, what was the demographic complexity (since I don’t know a more accurate term) of the test group in terms of years in college, major, socioeconomic background, etc.? Do any of these types of factors relate to the results?

    1. Hi Carol!
      The operation span task is a test of working memory that has participants memorize words while being distracted by a mathematical equation. So participants will see a word, then they’ll see an equation that they have to determine the accuracy, and then they’ll see another word. This goes on for however long the set is supposed to be and then they are asked to give the words back in the order that they saw them.
      The test group was 33 students from The College of Wooster, all ages, majors, and socioeconomic backgrounds. There were only 5 first year students and the rest were upperclassmen, so the difference in those results were not significant.

  3. I love the study. It’s timely and get sick questions that are timeless. Also, the presentation on the poster is extremely clear.
    Am I right to think that the test conditions involved with recalling normal times versus recalling stressful times? Might there be an interesting difference between the effects of recalling stress and the effects of being under chronic stress?I can imagine, for instance, that sometimes recalling stressful situations, when one is not in them, results in a kind of relief.

    1. Thanks for the questions, Geoff!
      Yes, the test conditions involved recalling normal vs. pandemic (stressful) times. I definitely think there would be a difference! But since all of the participants were students who are still in school, they are still under chronic stress.

  4. Oops. Sorry about the typo: “should be “and gets at questions that are timeless.”

  5. Hi Carina! Congratulations! I had a question regarding the revised College Chronic Life Stress Survey – in what way(s) did the survey differ from the original? Did you revise the survey items specifically to reference the pandemic?

    1. Hi Juliana!
      The original College Chronic Life Stress Survey had 54 questions and I narrowed down those questions to 45. This included wording the questions differently because some of the language was dated or putting questions together because some were asking similar things. I did not revise the survey to specifically reference the pandemic, but some of the questions would definitely be more affected by being in a semester during the pandemic.

      1. I was wondering this same question, so thanks for asking, Juliana, and thanks for answering, Carina. Great job, and I am sure this timely research will be valuable for future discussions in your next chapter after Wooster.

  6. Carina, I am so proud of you for completing your IS, you are a big role model for me within the Psych department! Your poster was very easy to follow!

  7. Hi Carina, great to see all the activity around your poster today! Were there any questions that you would consider Wooster-specific, or would you ask the same questions for students at Michigan State University, for example? Here, the ice cream store closed for the whole year; that is another stress factor…

    1. I would ask the same questions for MSU students! The questions were all pretty basic and they could be used in any college setting.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Foster! I really appreciate all of your guidance this past year.

  8. Congratulations!

    Great job finishing I.S., I will be doing that in a few years! I was just wondering what kind of results you expected as you move to a larger sample size including different schools, regions, etc. Do you think there would still be no correlation as found from your study at The College of Wooster?

    1. Thank you, Jason!
      I would expect to find a negative correlation as I move to a larger sample size, which would make sense based on the previous research I found. I would also expect to find a larger difference between first years and upperclassmen regarding stress levels.

  9. Congratulations Carina! Were participants grouped at all to show observable trends among students with similar majors or activities? What was your favorite part of the project?

    1. Thank you, Holly! The only groups that I had were gender and class group (first years vs upperclassmen) but I think it would be interesting to group by major or activity.
      My favorite part of the project was receiving data through my surveys, it was fun to see everyone go through it!

  10. Congrats, Carina, on completing your IS! Well done. Knowing that the study was about stress comparison with COVID-19, is there anything you would of done differently in your study had there not been the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions? Anything that limited what you could do in particular or forced a change in approach?

    1. Thank you, Mr. Busch!
      I was planning on doing in-person research and testing participants in that manner, but I had to send out surveys instead to make sure that I got enough participants and that I was COVID safe.

  11. Great work Carina! I’m so impressed by your project; choosing to focus significant attention on stress in a very stressful time is a testament to your high level of academic ability. Wonderful job!

  12. What a timely study you have conducted. It would be interesting to see this applied to a larger group including students who are off-campus (other colleges and universities) Congratulations on morphing your research to the times: you have shown great resilience and flexibility.

    1. Thank you, Nancy!
      If I was able to conduct more research, I would definitely want to open up the participant pool to include colleges across the country to see if there is any variance among the answers.

  13. Congratulations, Carina! This IS is so interesting and awesome – just like you!

  14. Carina,
    Congratulations on conducting such an interesting study. As you know, I work in college mental health services. One observation many college psychiatrists have made about the impacts of this year is that we are seeing many more students presenting with concerns about their attention, concentration and memory. We have discussed that some factors going into this may be the sometimes less engaging lectures on line, the overall lack of structure in day to day life, and the increased knowledge about adult adhd/ seeking care for mental health concerns. You have reminded me about the relationship between chronic stress and working memory. I have noticed that COVID has been much harder for some students than others — for many reasons. For example, the women living in your house were buffered from some of the social isolation b/ c of the luckiness of getting to be a pod together. Another example is students who have more stress through losing or worrying about loved ones.
    Did your study have a way to measure the stress each student endured during COVID?
    My apologies that this is such a long comment— just b/c I think your question is so interesting

    1. Thank you, Dr. White!
      I was interested in this topic even before COVID hit and honestly, it just became more interesting during the pandemic. The study design had a survey for participants to self-indicate their stress levels but the questions were the same for students who were asked about a semester in the pandemic and a normal semester. Thanks for the question!

  15. Congratulations Carina! This is such an interesting question to ask, and it is always really fascinating to see how someone with such a scientific mind approaches it!

    Well done and enjoy the future and all it holds for you!

  16. Hi Carina, this is a super interesting project. What led you to want to study this specific research? Did your Junior IS play a role in your thesis? Amazing work!

    1. Thanks, Wave!
      I really wanted to study something that affected a large portion of the population and would be an easy topic to research with COW students as participants. I also really liked my class Memory and Cognition which is why I went with the topic of working memory.
      Psych students don’t actually have Junior IS but we did have some labs that had interesting experiments that I based my study’s design off of.

  17. Congrats Carina on all your hard work this year! So proud of you and all your accomplishments!

  18. Congratulations Carina! Watching your persistence and determination in completing this project was so inspiring. I’m proud of you!

  19. Whether the results were significant or not, the question you raise is timely, interesting, and relevant. I really loved this Carina!

    1. Thank you, Alayt! I really wish the research had found significant results but that just means more research has to be done!

  20. Congratulations Carina! Although I am not familiar with the subject matter, your poster laid out the information very well and the study seems very interesting!

  21. Congratulations Carina! What a wonderful project with an even better title. Very proud of you!

  22. This is fantastic work Carina – you should be incredibly proud of yourself for what you’ve accomplished here!

  23. I love how you’ve faced the mental health challenges of COVID head on in your project. Awesome job, Carina!

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