Getting Students in the Zone

Some colleges are hoping biofeedback technology will help students defeat stress and perform better on tests and in subjects such as math.
September 16, 2008

Don’t worry, be happy. It’s just a math class.

Some colleges are making use of new biofeedback technology to help students physically and mentally prepare themselves for the stresses of the classroom. One of the methods being taught to students, pioneered by the Institute of HeartMath, emphasizes the reduction of stress by bringing one’s heartbeat to a more harmonious pattern through a set of breathing and psychological exercises. Instructors and students of the technique say that it brings the mind and body into a more synchronous state, reducing the stress that often impedes productivity and performance in and outside of the classroom. Programs advocating biofeedback technology -- using one’s mind to improve one’s health – are gaining popularity, particularly in conjunction with test preparation and for courses in which many students suffer stress, such as math.

“The heart sends more information to the brain than any other part of the body,” said Robert Rees, director of education and humanities at the Institute of HeartMath, noting that adjusting one’s heartbeat to an ordered rhythm can help focus the mind.

The Institute of HeartMath is a non-profit education and research organization that emphasizes "heart-based living," a method of utilizing biofeedback. Educational institutions can buy equipment and receive training from the organization to instruct students on how to make this most of this technology. The cost for the college or university varies depending on the institution's needs, said Gabriella Boehmer, institute spokeswoman. For example, one unit at a counseling center costs $299; a site license for a computer lab costs $3,375.

Institutions investing in biofeedback technology hope to teach students how to shift their heartbeats. Initially, students use computer software to view their heart rate and see how different emotions, such as stress and anxiety, affect it. The software, which gathers pulse data from either the fingertip or the ear, then shows students how to shift to a positive emotional state and alter their heart rate to effect certain physiological responses.

“The ‘ah-hah’ moment comes for most people when they see a physiological shift,” Rees said. “When we are in a positive emotional state, we like that better than when we are in a stressed emotional state. When we’re stressed we got out and do something to get in a better state, like eating ice cream or getting a few beers or something like that. If you can do that without all of those other things, it’s an empowering feeling.”

San José State University includes the HearthMath technology in a credit course that teaches students how to decrease stress.The University of San Francisco offers a one-day seminar entitled “The Power to Change Performance” making use of a similar curriculum.

While some institutions have only used the program in a personal counseling capacity, other institutions are implementing experimental programs explicitly tied to the classroom and coursework. Berkshire Community College, in Pittsfield, Mass., for example, initially piloted a biofeedback-based program in an elementary algebra course. Instructors wanted to help students alleviate their math anxiety and improve their test scores and performance as a result.

After familiarizing herself with the technology, Lisa Mattila, a personal counselor at the college, introduced it to students in the developmental math class selected for the pilot program. She noted that prior studies of the subject indicate that 30 percent of its students at the college experience math anxiety. As an incentive, extra credit was given to the developmental math students who utilized the biofeedback technology. Of a class of 23, 12 students initially made use of the method. Five other students also used the program in some capacity. In this pilot program, a third of the students who passed the course used HeartMath-developed software in some capacity to reduce their anxiety and improve their test-taking performance with some success.

“On my first exam, I had a grade below 70, but when I took my second exam, I had above a 70,” wrote one student in a review of the college’s pilot program. “I am not sure if the HeartMath had anything to do with it, but I realized I was able to stay focused on my exam the whole time. I also realized I had little test anxiety compared to before. The thing is, indirectly, I was using what I had learned from the [software]. I was calm, relaxed and spent as much as was allowed for the exam. I know I can concentrate and focus a little longer than I used to.”

Mattila said many instructors want to see independent research of the biofeedback system and try the related software for themselves before allowing its use in their classrooms.

Louise Hurwitz, the college's director of developmental and transition programs, stated in an e-mail that math faculty have expressed concern about their lack of familiarity with the HeartMath software.

"It seemed a little 'new-age' to them," Hurwitz stated. "This might make it difficult for them to refer to students. Some wanted more hard data as to its effectiveness. In general, there was skepticism, but a willingness to refer students as the faculty realize the need for ways to help students with math anxiety."

Even if the technology only helps a few students and does not succeed across the board, Mattila said she thinks it is worth the investment. The community college is planning to expand the program to other math and non-math courses in the future and run statistical research to see if this technology and technique can be justified with quantitative data.

Rees said he experienced a similar resistance from some academics when introducing HeartMath’s biofeedback software for use in the classroom.

“People are suspicious of things that are simple,” Rees said, adding that the openness of academics to the method varies depending on the crowd he is addressing. “There are some simple things that work, and there are some simple things that don’t. This has a strong scientific grounding and a lot of medical and physiological practitioners love what we’re doing because they say it works. In higher education and with professionals, there’s a high skepticism of something that isn’t theirs. I really enjoy working with the skeptical and think, if they suspend their disbelief for a bit, they’ll understand what I’m talking about.”


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