Arousal is a major aspect of many learning theories and is closely related to other concepts such as anxiety, attention, agitation, stress, and motivation. The arousal level can be thought of as how much capacity you have available to work with. One finding with respect to arousal is the Yerkes-Dodson law which predicts an inverted U-shaped function between arousal and performance.
A certain amount of arousal can be a motivator toward change (with change in this discussion being learning). But too much or too little will work against the learner. You want some mid-level point of arousal that provides the motivation to change (learn). Too little arousal has an inert affect on the learner, while too much has a hyper affect. There are optimal levels of arousal for each task to be learned:
You might think of arousal and cognitive levels as fluid in a glass. If you put too much in of any ingredient, the glass overflows. If you do put too little in, you are not using the glass to its fullest capabilities. And if you put the wrong ingredients in, but the glass is full, then it does not taste good.
What does this mean to trainers?
Control environmental arousal factors such as the noise level, temperature, comfort, etc. This allows you to put more arousal factors that are beneficial to learning without going into arousal overload. A colleague of mine once had to give some training at a meat packing company. The only place they had for him to train was in a cold storage room (true story). He managed to get through the training by leaving out most of the arousal factors that he normally uses. The cold room had already overloaded the learners' peak arousal level (stress) and he did not want to arouse them anymore.
When training tasks that are high on the cognitive scale or are highly complex, use less motivators and keep the stress level low. The brain tends to shut certain aspects out when it has too many inputs coming in at once, and the one input that you do not want it to shut out is what your learners need to learn. Some trainers call this brain-overload or brain-cramps. This does not mean you cannot make the material interesting, just keep their arousal on an even keel.
Outdoor or physical team training activities require more arousal techniques. This is where the trainer has to become more of a college football type coach and less of a trainer. The effort to reach the peak arousal point where the most change (learning) takes place is higher on this scale than cognitive learning. To reach that peak arousal point you need to provide more stress and motivation. This is why such team training programs as the U. S. Armed Forces Basic Training creates great teams - they reach the arousal point that is on the high-end for this type of learning.
Tests can be great motivators for getting students to learn...it shows they mastered the task, they do not like to fail, they want that certificate, its a challenge, etc. But test taking anxiety can push some learners' arousal level over the peak arousal point. You can reduce stress levels by supplying non-graded quizzes and performance activities that provide reassurance and feedback to the learners.
When the optimum arousal point goes too low then use activities that get the learners interacting with each other or moving. Provide them inspirational speeches, challenging games, and puzzles, give them a pop quiz.
When the optimum arousal point goes too high then take the cognitive focus off the goal (eliminate "what if" statements) and place it on the process. Take a break, watch a video, stretch. Play a fun, but interesting game.
Provide the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions about the learning to take place as it helps to eliminate fears...you and the learning environment need to control the stress factors, not the unknowns.
Anxiety and arousal
Many trainers believe that all anxiety must be removed from the training environment. But, again, there is an optimal level. The Optimal Arousal Level can be thought of as the Optimal Motivational Level. And one of the things that motivate people is anxiety. But, many people seem to have a negative connotation to the word "anxiety" as they associate it with neurotic inferences. It might help to picture anxiety in three terms as Freud did:
Too much anxiety impedes the learning process
When you take anxiety out of the training environment, you leave the learner without a major motivator. There is an old learning theory (now discredited) that states "the learner is an empty vessel in which the instructor pours knowledge." And unintentionally, this is how many training environments now operate. All the learners have to do is show up for the training session and they pass as the training environment has been completely sanitized of all emotions. The trainers believe that their entertaining and interesting instruction is going to be "poured" into the learners.
Excellent training places the responsibility of learning on both the trainer and the learner - the trainer provides the learning tools, while the learner's responsibility is to use these tools. And by creating an anxious-free environment, you take away one of the major motivational tools of the learner.
Perhaps anxiety's most effective use in training would be in a safety class. Pilots go through simulators not only for the psychomotor practice and to increase their knowledge, but also because some of the simulations are so realistic that they get anxiety attacks that tell them "danger, do something now!" not "something is going wrong, lets wait and see what happens." These types of anxiety attacks are our friend, they tell us to take immediate action by releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream, stimulating the heart, raising the metabolic rate, and increasing the blood glucose concentration.
Safety is not only having the knowledge to do things the correct way, the skills to perform correctly, but also the "attitude to react" to unsafe conditions. Some have said it is unethical for trainers to change attitudes, or that trainers should change behaviors, not attitudes. But that is a training cop-out. I work in a plant with forklifts, conveyors, machinery, and many other potential hazards. When I leave work I want to do so via my car, not in a hearse on the way to the county morgue or in an ambulance with an amputated leg, because the people who work with me "displayed safe behaviors" but did not have the attitude to react to something going wrong or sense (become anxious) when they were about to do something dangerous. Failing to incorporate affective (attitude) domain training into a safety classes means that you, the trainer, failed at your task.
The learning zone
How do you know when you have reached the optimum arousal point for your learners? In sports, a player who is playing great is at the optimum arousal point and is said to be "in the zone." Achieving the optimum arousal level in a training environment puts students in the Learning Zone:
The optimum level of arousal allows one to go from this to this.
In closing, each task has an optimal level of arousal and the level of arousal includes anxiety, attention, agitation, stress, and motivation. The trainer's job is to help each learner reach their optimal level of arousal so that their focus is totally on the task to be learned.
Recent research and findings
A University of Chicago researcher reported performing tests on the influence that a stress-related hormone has on learning in ground squirrels and that it could have an impact on understanding how it influences human learning. Jill Mateo (2007), Assistant Professor in Comparative Human Development, said that modest levels of cortisol are apparently linked to their survival. The inverted U, similar to Yerkes-Dodson's law, is the shape data forms on a chart. Animals with low levels of cortisol are at the left of the inverted U, and those with high levels are at the right, while those with modest levels and higher learning are in the middle. You can find more information on this story at Science Daily:
Correct Levels Of Stress Hormones Boost Learning, Squirrel Study Suggests
ScienceDaily, Mar.16, 2008
Tests on the influence that a stress-related hormone has on learning in ground squirrels could have an impact on understanding how it influences human learning, according to a University of Chicago researcher.
Jill Mateo, Assistant Professor in Comparative Human Development, has found that when they perform normal survival tasks, ground squirrels learn more quickly if they have a modest amount of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress, than those with either high or low levels of cortisol.
In humans, cortisol production is also related to stress and is known to have an impact on learning, but that impact is not well understood, Mateo said. The research on ground squirrels could point to additional avenues of research.
In order to survive, ground squirrels must adapt quickly and learn how to navigate the dangers of their environment so they can find their way back to their burrows. Ground squirrel pups typically emerge from their burrows about the time they're weaned, at four weeks of age.
"Two hundred can emerge at the same time, providing a feast for predators," said Mateo, who studies Belding ground squirrels, native to high elevations in the western United States. In nature, about 30 percent of pups do not survive.
Modest levels of cortisol are apparently linked to their survival, Mateo reports in the article, "Inverted-U shape relationship between cortisol and learning in ground squirrels," published in an on-line posting of the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. The "inverted U" is the shape data forms on a chart. Animals with low levels of cortisol are at the left of the inverted U, and those with high levels are at the right, while those with modest levels and higher learning are in the middle.
In order to test whether animals with low levels have difficulty learning, Mateo simulated a natural setting with a maze and connected it with a box that contained a nest of squirrel pups. She noninvasively altered the amount of coritsol in the pups' systems and found that those with both high and low cortisol levels took an average of 13 to 14 trials before they navigated the maze, while a control group of non-treated pups with a modest amount of cortisol needed just nine.
She tested the animals' response to danger by throwing a Frisbee over the maze and also by sounding a bird call to see how quickly the pups responded. High and low amounts of cortisol reduced the animals' ability to learn how to respond to danger.
Among humans, what research that has been done on cortisol and learning has been inconclusive. Unlike animals, researchers cannot moderate cortisol levels in humans to study its impact. However, scholars are aware of situations in which cortisol levels change due to unusual interventions and events.
For instance, in order to help women at risk of pre-term birth deliver healthy babies, doctors sometimes treat them with synthetic glucocorticoids, which raise cortisol levels. The glucocorticoids facilitate fetal lung development.
"We know almost nothing about the neurobiological implications of these treatments on cognitive development of children," she said. Animal studies have shown that these treatments can have negative effects on brain development, she said.
Additionally, little is known about the impact of low cortisol on learning among humans. Pregnant women who are exposed to stress, such as those tested after directly experiencing the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11, developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and had significantly lower cortisol two years later, as did their babies.
The animal tests also help to understand the potential human impact of low cortisol on learning, she said.