University professor researches therapy dogs’ effect on test anxiety

PAWS partnered with the Cotner Lab to see if the presence of therapy animals would help students struggling with test anxiety.

Junior Melissa Foster interacts with the dogs brought in from PAWS before her test in BIOL 1003 on Monday, April 2. She said that the dogs helped reduce her stress.

Ananya Mishra

Junior Melissa Foster interacts with the dogs brought in from PAWS before her test in BIOL 1003 on Monday, April 2. She said that the dogs helped reduce her stress.

David Mullen

To better understand test anxiety and who it affects, five therapy dogs were brought in and snuggled by students before an exam last week at the University of Minnesota.

Pet Away Worry and Stress, a free, on-campus animal therapy program from Boynton Health, and the Cotner Lab in the College of Biological Sciences at the University, collaborated to test how therapy animals, particularly dogs, can affect test anxiety.

On Monday, the dogs were provided for students before a test in Biology 1003 at Bruininks Hall. The dogs were also brought in for a different course section’s test in February.

Sehoya Cotner, a professor in CBS and head of the Cotner Lab who is conducting the study, said there are clear disparities in what kinds of students schools are training to be scientists and researchers. Test anxiety can be a barrier for some students hoping to enter the science field.

“We have some data that suggests clearly that women and first-generation college students are more susceptible to test anxiety in terms of performance,” Cotner said.

Cissy Ballen, an on-site researcher and post-doctoral student, said the lab collected data by administering a precourse survey to the class. Additionally, four questions about the student’s test anxiety were added to the end of each exam. Students in the course have not been told they are involved in the test anxiety study.

“We’re still seeing gender differences,” said Cotner of the data collected so far.

While many students were engaged with the therapy dogs before the first exam, only a handful of students participated in petting the animals the second time. Sophomore Owen Luterbach chose not to interact with the dogs.

“I wanted to study for the test before and do some last-minute cramming,” he said. “I think it could potentially help some students calm down before an exam.”

On the other hand, junior Melissa Foster embraced the dogs.

“I think it really helped reduce the stress because I didn’t really think about the test as much,” Foster said.

Cotner’s ultimate goal for the study is to find a way to lower test anxiety in students. She said she believes therapy animals could be the answer.

She added that the therapy animals won’t affect student performance on exams.

The Cotner Lab will be busy analyzing the data gathered Monday but is already looking towards the future.

Tanya Bailey, the PAWS coordinator, said she hopes this study spurs more research on therapy animals.

“I would really love to … give voice and support to the power that animals, and the power that nature and a healthy environment, can play into our ongoing every day wellness,” Bailey said.