Best Practices At Work | Ike C. de la Peña • Michael C. Pan

Learning During Stressful Situations:

Optimizing Evidence-based Learning Strategies

The abrupt shift from traditional face-to-face modalities to alternative platforms of learning (such as online classes, self-guided modules, etc.), as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, has affected many educators and students.1 Students, in particular, have struggled with issues relating to academics (adjustment to new learning modalities) and mental health (depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts).2 Unsurprisingly, many have fallen behind in their learning.3

As the world enters various stages of recovery from COVID-19, students (and educators) are now facing new challenges. Students may experience back-to-school anxiety and stress when visiting other places.4 Furthermore, others may still grapple with grief and trauma from losing a loved one and/or recovering from a disability due to COVID-19, or from the long period of confinement due to the pandemic lockdowns.

How can teachers help students as they go back to school? What strategies can they use to help students catch up for the “learning loss” during the pandemic?5 How can educators help students learn during stressful situations, in general?

Focusing on students’ well-being is critical to help student learn and succeed amidst challenging learning situations.6 Thus, teaching students stress and anxiety management techniques is as crucial as introducing effective ways to learn and to study. In this article, we discuss strategies that educators could use in providing student support during stressful situations. Next, we describe evidence-based learning and teaching strategies that could be applied alongside or after implementing the stress management techniques, in order to promote student gains in learning despite stressful circumstances.

Optimizing Learning through Stress Management

By keeping student stress at healthy or adaptive levels, educators can increase their students’ readiness to learn. The following stress management techniques could be introduced to students during their classes as special activities to promote well-being, or in remedial programs which they could use during their free time. They may also be included as part of school-level psychosocial support services. Importantly, these are strategies that teachers themselves can use to manage their own stress, since their mental health could also affect student learning.7

Fostering Self-awareness

Stress reactions may result from various triggering factors. One important step to deal with stress is to foster self-awareness.8 To do this, teachers can teach students to explore and identify their physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive reactions when stressed, and the circumstances upon which they emerge.9 They can also be asked to explore their own strengths in order to increase their awareness of the internal resources that they could use to effectively manage stress.10

A handy tool to promote self-awareness and realize the need for self-care is the acronym H.A.L.T. which stands for “Am I hungry? Am I angry? Am I lonely? Am I tired?”11 If a student answers “Yes” to any or all of these questions, he/she is then encouraged to reflect on situations that trigger these reactions. The following stress management techniques could then be applied as needed, before or as the stress emerges.

Managing Difficult Emotions

Negative thoughts like “This coursework or assignment is too much for me to bear!” may elicit negative feelings (such as hopelessness), which could be further intensified by stressful events. Reframing, or looking at a situation from a different perspective, is an emotion regulation technique that could be used to manage negative thoughts and their outcomes, and difficult emotions.12 Reframing can bring about healthier emotions and consequently, more adaptive behaviors.13

To implement reframing, ask students to first, identify the negative thought underlying a negative emotion (for example, loneliness, worry). Next, ask them to reframe this thought, through a number of ways depending on an individual’s perspectives (see Box 1). Finally, inquire deeper by asking students to reflect on how reframing helped change previous feelings and behavior.

When implementing this technique, teachers may note their students’ responses, behaviors, or experiences in order to identify chronically stressed students14 whose daily functioning has been severely disrupted by stress, or those who have become a threat to themselves or others. These individuals could then be referred for further assessment and interventions by qualified mental health practitioners. However, deciding when and whom to refer may be more challenging on some occasions. Teachers may benefit from additional training on student mental health and the delivery of basic psychosocial support.

Exercising Positive Emotions

This strategy revolves around actively nurturing positive emotions such as compassion and gratitude. One way to practice compassion and lovingkindness, is to visualize oneself and others (loved ones, friends, or even enemies) and repeatedly utter (either verbally or mentally) wishes of goodwill and love to the individual(s) one has in mind.15 This could be done during breathing exercises, meditation, or at any other time as determined by the individual. To exercise gratitude, one could simply reflect on the events of the day (for example, before going to sleep at night) and meditatively recollect the things for which they are thankful—extraordinary happenings or even simple things such as having good weather.16 Other ways of expressing gratitude that are practiced in an individual’s culture may also be incorporated into this exercise.

Teachers may also encourage the use of this technique when reaching out to students who are in emergency situations such as those stranded in temporary shelters (like evacuation or isolation facilities). Ultimately, the goal is to encourage reflection and positive thoughts and emotions (Philippians 4:8).

Nurturing Spirituality

By nurturing spirituality, one could be provided with a more holistic psychosocial support, which would be more meaningful in times of crisis, calamities, or stressful life transitions. Spiritual interventions have been associated with positive psychosocial outcomes in students,17 and thus could be implemented at the school level, to help students cope with challenging learning environments. Learning institutions may provide students with spiritual-support programs and access to opportunities that will help them maintain a healthy spirituality while facing their struggles. Teachers themselves, can modify existing programs in the school or initiate spiritual wellness activities that are applicable to the existing crisis. However, these activities must be carefully delivered while considering and respecting the varying spiritual orientations and religious traditions of each student.

The stress-management techniques outlined above are merely complementary measures that educators can introduce and use, and are not meant to replace formalized services to address serious mental-health issues of students. Schools without existing academic-support programs could initiate them, while those with support services already in place may need to streamline and more actively mobilize their programs to deal with current circumstances.

Teaching Evidence-based Learning Strategies

Given the effectiveness of evidence-based learning strategies when employed in different learning situations (in-person or online),18 the use of these techniques could also help students learn better during stressful times. They may also increase student engagement,19 which would be useful for educators as they deal with students who have returned to school whose motivation and morale have been affected by the pandemic and lockdowns.

Retrieval Practice

Also called the “testing effect,” retrieval practice is a cognitive strategy that involves recalling memorized information. The act of retrieval itself strengthens memory and facilitates deeper learning and long-term storage of information. Retrieval practice has been shown to enhance the learning of not only college students, but also preschool, elementary-aged, middle school, and high school students.20 Moreover, this technique has been shown to decrease cognitive load, enhance metacognition, and boost student confidence.21 For students experiencing back-to-school anxiety and stress, retrieval practice is one of the best techniques to introduce, given that this strategy also reduces test anxiety.22

Instead of the usual re-writing and highlighting notes, which is passive and time-consuming, students could be instructed to create flashcards from notes, answer practice tests or create and answer their own practice quizzes. To use retrieval practice in engaging ways, teachers can employ the Socratic method of teaching (teaching by asking rather than by telling),23 or online tools during their lectures, such as Kahoot!, Flipgrid, PollEverywhere, and Quizlets (see Box 2). To maximize the benefits of retrieval practice, teachers should instruct students to think of testing as a tool to enhance rather than monitor the status of their learning.24 The above-mentioned online technologies should also be used as retrieval tools rather than competitive activities in order to maximize student participation and reduce anxiety.

Spaced Practice

The benefits of retrieval practice can be augmented when used in tandem with spaced practice, another highly effective learning strategy. Spaced practice, which is the opposite of cramming, involves studying material in a distributed fashion (spreading it out over time) rather than in a single, long session.25 Spacing promotes “a little bit of forgetting,” which is actually helpful in encoding and long-term storage of information.

For students who have just returned to school after the pandemic, giving them daily quizzes may further intensify their stress and anxiety. Educators could instead plan out and space the delivery of practice quizzes and assessments, in order to reduce student stress and effectively incorporate both spaced and retrieval practice. They can also teach their students (especially young learners) to design their personal study schedules that effectively use spaced practice. Moreover, starting a lecture with a brief review of previous materials and giving cumulative assessments are effective strategies to facilitate recall of materials learned during the past day, week, block, or semester. Assigning homework on previous topics can also ensure that already-acquired information remains fresh within the students’ minds.


Stressed-out students may find it even harder to learn complex and difficult subjects, such as math and calculations. Interleaving, a learning strategy that entails presenting or studying materials in a mixed rather than blocked or sequential fashion, is a method that could help students deal with subjects that involve calculation or problem-solving skills.26 Interleaving trains the mind to decide which strategy to use to solve a particular problem and to identify similarities and differences between ideas and concepts.27

Teachers can use interleaving by using online tools such as applications (e.g., Quizlet, Quiz Champ, etc.) that provide built-in interleaving algorithms (see Box 2). They can also personally teach their students to use this strategy effectively (i.e., to mix different but related learning materials such as calculating volumes of different shapes, rather than unrelated ones, for example, math problems and vocabulary themes).28 Teachers can also creatively devise instructional tools and help students design study methods or schedules that combine interleaving and the above-discussed learning strategies.

Dual Coding

Dual coding involves using words and pictures to teach or learn content.29 This technique, however, does not pertain to evaluating one’s learning style (e.g. auditory, visual, kinesthetic) and studying according to that “style,” which does not really accelerate student learning.30

Teachers can use dual coding by combining texts and pictures/illustrations in their presentations/lectures. The use of infographics, diagrams, cartoon strips, and videos are “attention-grabbing” and engaging ways of using this technique. Students, on the other hand, could rewrite texts from books and create visuals that accompany the texts. They could also be instructed to re-create the visuals from memory and describe them using text, in order to integrate both dual coding and retrieval practice.

The above list is certainly not exhaustive, and decades of research have identified other evidence-based teaching and learning strategies.31 Note, however, that the effectiveness of the above-described learning strategies was demonstrated in “normal” laboratory or classroom environments, thus, studies are needed to establish their efficacy when used amidst stressful situations. During these challenging times, psychosocial support and stress management skills may be introduced to optimize effectiveness and facilitate continued use of evidence-based learning strategies by the students. In any case, teachers must inform learners that evidence-based learning strategies create “desirable difficulties” (i.e., considerable but desirable amount of effort), which underlie their beneficial outcomes.32

As Christian educators, it behooves us to train our students to become “thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other people’s thoughts.”33 The use of evidence-based learning strategies can facilitate deeper processing of content, and transform students to become active learners who are more likely to succeed in their learning endeavors.

In conclusion, student learning could be affected by stressful conditions. Educators can play an important role in creating a supportive environment for students—one that employs evidence-based strategies and nurtures positive mental health to effectively maximize learning amidst difficult situations.

This article has been peer reviewed.

Ike C. de la Peña

Ike C. de la Peña, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical and Administrative Sciences at Loma Linda University School of Pharmacy (LLUSP), Loma Linda, California, U.S.A. He obtained his PhD in Pharmacology at Sahmyook University, South Korea, and pursued postdoctoral fellowships in Neurosurgery and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida, and Neuropharmacology in Loma Linda University. As a neuroscientist, Dr. de la Pena has been doing translational research on drug addiction, neurodevelopmental disorders, and adult brain injuries for more than a decade. As an educator, he is interested in developing innovative ways and teaching virtues to advance pharmaceutical education. He currently teaches Foundations in Biomedical Sciences and an elective course on strategies to enhance learning and memory at LLUSP.

Michael C. Pan

Michael C. Pan, MA, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of the Philippines - Visayas Tacloban College, Tacloban City, Philippines. He has served as a consultant for government and non-government organizations in the design and implementation of mental health and psychosocial support services. He has also delivered psychological first aid, resilience-based intervention programs, and other forms of psychosocial support to survivors of traumatic events. While in South Korea, he actively supported migrant groups and other organizations in promoting mental health and wellbeing. He has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of the Philippines and a Master’s in Clinical and Counseling Psychology from Korea University.

Recommended citation:

Ike C. de la Peña and Michael C. Pan, “Learning During Stressful Situations: Optimizing Evidence-based Learning Strategies,” The Journal of Adventist Education 83:2 (2021): 39-44.


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  2. Ibid.
  3. Per Engzell, Arun Frey and Mark Verhagen, “Learning loss due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 118:17 (2021): e2022376118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2022376118.
  4. Martha Pelaez, and Gary Novak, “Returning to School: Separation Problems and Anxiety in the Age of Pandemics,” Behav Anal Pract 13:3 (2020): 1-6: doi: 10.1007/s40617-020-00467-2.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Sun Young Park et al, “Understanding Students’ Mental Well-Being Challenges on a University Campus: Interview Study,” JMIR Form Res 4:3 (2020): e15962; Lu Yu, Daniel Shek, and Xioaqin Zhu, “The Influence of Personal Well-Being on Learning Achievement in University Students Over Time: Mediating or Moderating Effects of Internal and External University Engagement,” Front Psychol 8:2287 (2017). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02287
  7. Christina Gray, Gabrielle Wilcox, and David Nordstokke, “Teacher Mental Health, School Climate, Inclusive Education and Student Learning: A Review,” Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne 58:3 (2017): 203-210.
  8. Maria Regina M. Hechanova et al., “The Development and Initial Evaluation of Katatagan: A Resilience Intervention for Filipino Disaster Survivors,” Philippine Journal of Psychology 48:2 (2015): 105-131.
  9. Stress Effects,” The American Institute of Stress, accessed June 20, 2021,
  10. Ibid.
  11. Tim Gakunju Waithaka, “Hungry Angry Lonely Tired (HALT): An everyday tool for self-care,” last modified April 28, 2020,
  12. James J Gross, “The Emerging Field of Emotion Regulation: An Integrative Review,” Review of General Psychology 2:3 (1998): 271-299.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Stefan G. Hofmann, Paul Grossman, and Devon E. Hinton, “Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation: Potential for Psychological Interventions,” Clinical Psychology Review 31:7 (November 2011): 1,126-1,132.
  16. Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” J Pers Soc Psychol 84:2 (2003): 377-389.
  17. Ernest Tamanji Anye et al., “The Relationship Between Spiritual Well-Being and Health-related Quality of Life in College Students,” Journal of American College Health 61:7 (October 2013): 414-421.
  18. Yana Weinstein, Christopher R. Madan, and Megan A Sumeracki, “Teaching the Science of Learning,” Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications 3:1 (2018): 2.; Ruthann C. Thomas et al., “Testing Encourages Transfer Between Factual and Application Questions in an Online Learning Environment,” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 7:2 (2018): 252-260.
  19. Amy Jo Stavnezer and Barbara Lom, “Student-led Recaps and Retrieval Practice: A Simple Classroom Activity Emphasizing Effective Learning Strategies,” J Undergrad Neurosci Educ 18:1 (Dec 2021):A1-A14.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid; Maya M Khanna, “Ungraded pop quizzes: test-enhanced learning without all the anxiety,” Teaching of Psychology, 42:2 (2015): 174–178.
  23. Mara B. Antonoff and Jonathan D’Cunha, “Retrieval Practice as a Means of Primary Learning: Socrates Had the Right Idea,” Seminars in Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery 23:2 (2011): 89, 90.
  24. Marissa K. Hartwig and John Dunlosky, “Study Strategies of College Students: Are Self-Testing and Scheduling Related to Achievement?” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 19:1 (2012): 126-134.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Doug Rohrer and Harold Pashler, “Learning Styles: Where’s the Evidence?” Medical Education 46:7 (July 1, 2012): 634, 635.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ike dela Peña, Kathryn Knecht, and Paul Gavaza, “Impact and Pharmacy Students’ Perception of an Elective Course on Evidence-Based Learning Strategies,” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (November 5, 2021): ajpe8232.
  33. Ellen G. White, True Education (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1903), 12.