10 Ways Emotions Influence Learning (and vice versa)


“Studies often emphasize performance changes and ignore the subjectively much more striking changes in mood and memory that accompany performance” ~ Sarah-Jayne Blackmore & Uta Frith.

child-boy-blowing-dandelion-plantThe quote is from The Learning Brain, authored by two giants of psychology and cognitive science over a decade ago. During the intervening years, educators have discovered cognitive psychology (or more specially, memory) but are yet to realise the potential of understanding the ways in which emotions – or rather ‘affective experiences’ – interact and influence learning.


As Blakemore and Frith continue:

“Memories often involve emotion and emotion often involves memory”.

It’s also more than just memory or anxiety but, rather, a vast combination of affective and cognitive states that can both help and hinder.

For example

1. Anxiety can enhance cognitive performance; too much can inhibit working memory function.

2. Anxiety can result in silence as well as screaming.

3. Boredom can result in a sensation resembling physical pain or depression, impacting                   behaviour and attention, but can also enhance creativity.

4. Curiosity can light the spark of interest, but interest needs to be sustained in order to                   encourage intrinsic motivation. We can, however, use extrinsic rewards to internalise                     motivation, making it more effective.

5. Fear of failure can motivate but can also reduce levels of resilience and academic buoyancy in     the absence of support and guidance.

6. The development of the teenage brain can result in higher levels of risk-taking – but not in           the classroom (which is one reason why many teens are reluctant to engage verbally in                 lessons).

7. Brain pathways that are used to consolidate and recall information interact with those                  responsible for emotion and emotional memories.

8. Being happy doesn’t necessarily lead to higher academic achievement, and can actually                inhibit certain cognitive functions.

9. Self-esteem does not directly influence academic achievement, but academic self-concept           does.

10. The ability to regulate emotions positively impacts academic achievement, but is an ability            that develops as the brain matures.

We understand more about how emotions impact learning and cognition than ever before, yet we often retain a very narrow understanding of what we mean by emotions, especially in learning environments.

Cognition is only part of the story.

For a more detailed discussion of some of these topics visit The Emotional Learner.



Could Lessons In Personality Help Teens Cope With Social Stressors?

personalityA new study from David Yeager suggests that teaching teenagers about social and personality traits could help them cope with certain social challenges such as bullying, which in turn could help with stress and lead to higher academic achievement.

Peer groups are vitally important to adolescents, much more so than for adults. While adults aren’t always worried about not fitting in with their peer group, teenagers possess a heightened desire to be accepted by and into the group. Social exclusion causes them anxiety which can in turn impact young people’s wellbeing and academic achievement. Teenagers cause no end of frustration for teachers and parents due to their change in behaviour when they have been excluded from a friendship group, and while we might comfort them there is little that can be done to calm the anxiety exclusion can cause. This anxiety (or the attempt to prevent it) coupled with a brain unable to inhibit risk taking, means that teenagers are highly influenced by the group they are worried about being excluded from. The transition from primary school to high school can be particularly difficult.

According to Yeager:

Adolescents are very focused on peer social hierarchy and status, and when they transition into high school, they are put into a situation where they have to figure out where they stand. Often, teenagers think if it’s going to be hard now, it’s going to be hard forever. That’s stressful for them.

Yeager suggest that teaching students that socially relevant traits are malleable, rather than fixed, can make them feel better prepared to face social challengers as opposed to viewing them as threats and thinking of them as lasting realities. Yeager’s research (to be published in Psychological Science) used two double-blind studies to monitor teenagers physiological responses to stress and how the lessons in personality could improve cognitive, physiological and behavioural responses to stressful situations as well as academic performance.

In the first study, Yeager and his team monitored cardiovascular responses as sixty teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 prepared and delivered a short speech on what makes people popular before completing a series of maths equations. Prior to undertaking the task, half of the teenagers were told that people and their socially relevant traits were changeable. Those teenagers who were exposed to this idea reported feeling less threatened by the task, exhibited higher cardiac efficiency and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They also performed better on speeches and the maths problems.

In the second study, 205 ninth grade students were tracked throughout the school year. Half of the sample received lessons on the idea that people could change (the intervention group). The students were asked to complete daily diaries where they reported all the stressful things that had happened to them, were asked how much they could deal with the stressors noted in the diaries and provided samples of saliva to measure the levels of stress hormones. Those students in the intervention group coped better on the days where they reported more stressors and were also exhibiting higher Grade Point Averages than their peers seven months later.

The study builds on work by Carol Dweck and other self-theorists whose research indicates that by exposing students to messages surrounding change and adaptation, it is possible to help them cope with stress, raise levels of resilience and obtain higher academic success. Although Yeager stresses that such psychological interventions don’t represent ‘magic bullets’ but can be seen as a ‘progressive step forward in the research process of addressing the wider public health issue of teenage stress’.

Mental Health, Concept Creep and Moral Panic.

mental-healthI don’t tend to read ‘columns’; I find them opinionated and often lacking in substance (a bit like a discussion on Twitter or some of my blogs). However, I was directed to a recent piece by Tom Bennett in the TES on mental health.

Now, I think I’ve made it clear in the past that I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the current debate surrounding the existence or otherwise of a child mental health crisis. This isn’t to say that I’m uncomfortable commenting on mental health, it’s just that the changing landscape of diagnosis and classification along with the controversies surrounding the latest diagnostic criteria mean that I just don’t know what to think. Nevertheless, here I am commenting on that very topic.

Bennett, behaviour advisor to the government and director of IdeologyED ResearchED, makes a number of pertinent points, some of which I alluded to in a blog post back in May. The most important point is that mental health is something that we need to get right – it’s far too important to fuck up.

But a moral panic helps no-one, least of all those vulnerable young people who need help most.

The point, I think, that we both agree on is that child mental health and it’s relationship to education policy is creating a moral panic rather than a need to establish the facts. Debra Kidd, in her recent blog ‘No Mental Health Crisis?’ makes a brave and valiant attempt to support the crisis hypothesis, but Kidd (like Bennett and like me) isn’t a mental health professional – we are amateur observers who interpret the findings and read the reports from altered perspectives.

In a recent paper Psychologist Nick Haslam makes some important observations related to this  (Haslam, 2016). Haslam suggests that society is taking psychological concepts and applying them erroneously to normative human behaviours; everyday ‘worry’ becomes pathologised as ‘anxiety disorder’, sadness as ‘depression’. So-called ‘concept creep’ works on a number of levels, reshaping society and creating more sensitive populations who must, in some way, be protected from everyday horrors; the need for resilience has replaced ordinary courage.

One worrying observation is that mental health appears to be populated by non-professionals, especially when it comes to child mental health and mental health in schools. The appointment of the recently deposed ‘Mental Health Champion for Schools’ Natasha Devon is perhaps one such example. Devon’s intentions are certainly laudable and the bravery with which she has taken on such a dispassionate and emotionally barren government is, in my mind, worthy of praise. Whether her knowledge of the complexity of mental illness, it’s diagnosis, classification and treatment is strong enough to warrant her influence, however, remains questionable.

So who do we listen to?

This is a major problem. There are a number of individuals on the speaker circuit who advise on mental health issues and have published books on how to respond to mental health problems in schools. Many aren’t mental health professionals and it is obvious that some have only a passing understanding of the psychology behind mental health and the complexities of diagnosis and classification. I recently received feedback from a publisher on a manuscript I’m currently circulating about the role of emotions on learning. To be clear, the manuscript details normative functions, the way they impact learning and how teachers can work with them. There is a chapter on anxiety but, again, in terms of everyday processes rather than extreme circumstances. The publisher liked the idea but insisted that I include more extreme behaviours (they actually singled out suicidal tendencies). I could have complied and perhaps even been looking at publication, but such areas are far beyond my knowledge and expertise, so I declined and submitted elsewhere. There is certainly a desire for such publications – I would argue against a need for them however, especially when written by amateur observers.

As I (and Bennett) have said, we need to get mental health right and we need to receive the right information from the right people. There will always be controversies and I suspect that it will be some time before we manage to reconcile the medical model of mental health (with its emphasis on neurochemical and genetic explanations) with more nurture related and environmental theories. Teachers aren’t mental health professionals and the danger is that those most in need of help get lost in the moral panic.

References and Further Reading:

Haslam, N. (2016). Concept creep: psychology’s expanding concepts of harm and pathology. Psychological Inquiry. 27 (1). p.pp. 1–17.

How Americans Became So Sensitive to Harm, The Atlantic.

Self-determination in the Classroom.


Edward Deci and Richard Ryan view motivation in terms of different types, and like earlier researchers stress the importance of intrinsic motivators over extrinsic ones. They suggest that people have three basic psychological needs.

The need for competence:

Our desire to control or master the environment and outcomes. People want to know how things are going to turn out and they want to know the results or consequences of their own actions.

The need for relatedness:

Our desire to interact with, be connected to and experience caring for other people. Everything we do in some way concerns others and our actions impact on those around us. Through this need to build up a sense of belonging develops the feeling that we are part of a wider world beyond the limits of ourselves.

The need for autonomy:

The urge to be causal agents and have full volition and choice over what we do. If autonomous motivation concerns choice, then controlled motivation relates to the lack of choice. Ryan and Deci describe it as ‘behaving with the experience of pressure or demand towards specific outcomes that come from forces perceived to be external to the self’. Autonomy, however, does not necessarily mean acting independently; it merely means acting with choice, so it can mean acting alone but also acting interdependently with others.

The main premise of Ryan and Deci’s theory involves the role of self-determining factors (hence their theory is known as ‘self-determination theory’ or SDT). SDT is a theory of human motivation, emotion and development concerned with factors related to assimilative and growth orientated processes in people. The theory’s primary concern is with the factors that promote or prevent people from intrinsically engaging in positive behaviours.

In order to be intrinsically engaged we need to feel that our actions are based on choice and free will, even if such feelings are illusionary. Motivation, therefore, becomes intricately entwined with emotional states such as interest curiosity and boredom. How motivated we are is often related to how we feel; whether a task bores us, excites us or sends us into a state of anxiety or helplessness. Yet, motivation isn’t just about internal states – environments play a major role.

The interpersonal climate of the classroom, for example, can have a major impact on motivation, especially motivation of the intrinsic kind. Teachers, classrooms and schools all differ in terms of the control they use. Some might be highly controlling, relying heavily on the absolute authority of teachers over pupils, strictly adhered to rules of behaviour and consistent and heavily relied on extrinsic reward and punishment procedures. Others might be more liberal in their approach towards control, allowing students a greater say in how and what they learn, implementing more restorative behaviour management policies and more flexible classroom rules. Schools represent complex systems and some might require more stringent behaviour management policies than others. A greater emphasis on rules doesn’t always have to mean a more controlling environment.

The emphasis here is on the nature of control. Highly controlled classroom environments undermine intrinsic motivation while autonomy supportive classrooms nurture it. This doesn’t mean that extrinsic reward systems don’t work in the classroom – they often do, so long as the interpersonal classroom context remains informational and supportive rather than critical and authoritarian. Conversely, positive feedback given in a controlling context will also tend to decrease intrinsic motivation. Classroom environments that encourage autonomy (autonomy-supportive) lead to greater learning and performance outcomes than controlling styles and there is ample evidence that suggests that practices and policies that rely on motivating pupils through sanctions, rewards and evaluations (and other forms of coercion and manipulation) undermine quality student engagement.

While controlling environments often stifle motivation, autonomy-supportive classrooms that foster interest, value and volition encourage greater persistence and better quality engagement and learning. Autonomy and competence are essential to the maintenance of intrinsic motivation – it’s difficult to find an activity either exciting or enjoyable if we feel we have little control over what we are doing. In his 1968 book ‘Human Causality’, educational psychologist Richard deCharms described this as our ‘internal perceived locus of causality’, meaning an experience that emanates from within ourselves rather than from any external source (our perceived locus of causality can be both internal and external). Intrinsic motivation, therefore, represents a locus of causality that is internal, although there it often occurs on a continuum.

Students must feel both autonomous and confident if they are to sustain intrinsic motivation so that a student who feels competent but feels that they have little or no autonomy will be unable to maintain intrinsic motivation.

Teacher and classroom style is often a prickly subject and is often dictated by personal ideology. Authoritarian teachers maintain that an approach that insists on things being done correctly, that students should be told what to do and use a number of controlling strategies lead to more manageable classrooms and more positive outcomes in terms of exam results.

Others emphasise the importance of allowing students to be more self-directed, to learn from their own successes and failures and to solve problems for themselves and, although I have known teachers at both extremes, the majority of teachers fall somewhere between them. There is a growing view in education that there exists a uniform way of teaching and that as long as these skills can be taught to teachers outcomes will improve. However, many of these skills appear authoritarian in nature (even going as far as punishing students for failing to track the teacher’s movements). Unfortunately for us, authoritarian teaching styles appear to do little in terms of intrinsic motivation and related educational outcomes. Early research conducted by Edward Deci found that in classrooms where teachers were more autonomy-supportive, students tended to be more intrinsically motivated, displaying behaviours such as curiosity, a preference towards challenge and greater mastery orientations. They also felt more competent in their schoolwork and had higher levels of self-esteem.

Cross-cultural evaluations appear to support this. Wendy Grolnick and Richard Ryan found that evaluative pressure undermined students’ intrinsic motivation and their school performance in the USA while Kage and Namiki obtained similar results with Japanese students. Additional cross-cultural studies have found that interest is enhanced for lessons where the teacher is autonomy-supportive but diminished when the teacher is more controlling.

The hypothesis has also been tested in various subject domains. Martyn Standage of the University of Bath compared student and teacher ratings of autonomy, autonomy-support, confidence, relatedness and self-determined motivation in physical education. Standage found that perceived autonomy-support was associated with higher levels of autonomous self-regulation, including intrinsic motivation and these, in turn, were associated with greater effort and persistence.

These and other studies are suggestive of a number of important points.

1. Teacher orientation and certain aspects of the learning task play a role in the development of intrinsic motivation. Teachers perceived as autonomous-supportive nurture students higher in intrinsic motivation than those teachers with more authoritarian styles – and this remains consistent across cultures.

2. Where children are high in intrinsic motivation and are taught in environments that support autonomy, they display a tendency towards better learning, especially on tasks requiring conceptual understanding.

3. The way in which teachers introduce learning tasks is important in that when tasks promote the basic psychological needs of autonomy and competence they allow for greater intrinsic motivation and deeper learning. If these basic psychological needs are not met, intrinsic motivation and achievement suffer.

The Other Side of Resilience.

camusDespite the plethora of interventions designed to raise levels of resilience (and the accompanying publications) we rarely stop to ask ourselves if attempts to make young people more resilient is even a good idea, let alone necessary. Can resilience ever be a bad thing? One would think not, after all, being more resilient allows us to bounce back from adversity and to keep going when things get tough, right?

Research into resilience has a short but rather intensive history, ranging from investigations into the way people recover from extreme trauma to how children from deprived backgrounds overcome their problems and flourish despite adversity.

One such series of studies, conducted in the 1970’s by Lawrence Hinkle, investigated the susceptibility of individuals to coronary heart disease. Hinkle found that there were a small number of individuals who could live through major changes in relationships, deprivations and dislocations and display little if any overt evidence of illness. The resilience they displayed was associated with two factors:

1. They had no history of pre-existing susceptibilities

2. They displayed certain personality characteristics that ‘insulated’ them from detrimental life experiences

In particular,

The healthiest members of the samples displayed little psychological reaction to events and situations which caused profound negative reactions in other members of the group. Life events such as the loss of a spouse produced no profound lasting reaction.

More importantly, many:

Displayed a distinct awareness of their own limitations and their psychological needs

Avoided situations that would make demands on them if they felt that they could not, or did not want to meet, these demands

For example, they might refuse a promotion because they didn’t want the extra responsibility and because money and prestige were of little importance to them.

Hinkle described many of the these individuals as having…

an almost sociopathic flavour… typical of so-called ‘invulnerables’… displaying characteristics of some kind of narcissistic disorder.

E. James Anthony calls this type of behaviour as the ‘Meursault Phenomenon’ after the protagonist of Albert Camus’ novel ‘The Outsider’. Meursault is a passive and detached observer of life who displays a flat level of affect even in response to the death of his mother; relationships mean nothing to him, nothing is either better or worse than anything else and his strategic selfishness is based on his convenience and the comfort of his ‘self’ (what psychologists of the psychodynamic persuasion would call ‘rational egoism’).

Meursault sustains his resilience by not engaging himself in the wider world and appears, according to Anthony, to be employing a strategy of defensive distancing that insulates him from all the ‘disturbing psychosocial impingements’ that exist in the environment, resulting in a kind of ‘psychoimmunization’.

From where such characteristics might arise is unclear but there is certainly a biological component. For example, highly resilient members of the US Special Forces have been found to have unusually high levels of a chemical known as neuropeptide Y that appears to protect them against PTSD and bestows higher levels of psychological resilience. However, like many studies of this kind, the direction of causality is more difficult to establish.

Increasing resilience in individuals is certainly a positive move, but resilience in the absence of human values and a strong moral compass could do more harm than good. Furthermore, the jury is still out on the whether or not resilience can be taught or if it arises through life experience or exists innately at a biological level. Ultimately, resilience exists in all of us and this is why we survive. Tinkering with the unknown on such a large scale and involving so many potentially vulnerable young people in often highly unregulated pseudo-scientific experiments could prove damaging at worse and pointless at best.      

Feel the FEAR!

peanutbutterI haven’t commented much on the whole ‘child mental health’ crisis thing, neither have I said anything about parents keeping their kids off school due the ‘stress’ caused by standardised testing. To be honest I’m fairly agnostic about the whole situation plus I’m certainly not experienced enough in mental health to make any judgements (I leave that to those who are equally inexperienced but more vocal in their gibberish).

Despite this I do have a few observations knocking around in by brain that are fairly desperate to escape, so by way of relieving myself of these burdensome gremlins I’ve decided to break my silence and try and write some kind commentary, a kind of outpouring of gunk.

1. Anxiety is real and it’s not the same as getting worried or nervous.

I get nervous when I have to sit an exam, attend an interview or give a presentation. Being nervous doesn’t even compare to when I’m in the throes of proper anxiety; exams and interviews don’t cause these episodes, in fact they’re often caused by an accumulation of little things.

Anxiety can be caused by anything and anxiety disorders can relate to anything from dogs to getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of ones mouth (it’s called  arachibutyrophobia) – phobias are anxiety disorders (as are conditions such as OCD). They are irrational and illogical but that doesn’t make them any less terrifying. Someone (I honestly can’t recall who) tweeted some time ago asking if maths anxiety is just anxiety. Well, of course it is, but often anxieties are directed towards a certain thing – this is what makes them phobias if they’re extreme enough.

There is, therefore, no reason why people can’t be test or exam phobic (or at least test anxious). The question is more about how many young people actually suffer from it – my guess would be very few; they are mistaking being nervous with being anxious and therefore stressed (‘stress’ seems to be used as catch all these days). This makes it incredibly difficult to separate those in desperate need of help and those who are actually just a bit worried.

2. Who is stressed: Child, Teacher or Parent?

This questions has really been bouncing around my head of late. I recall asking my son if he was nervous about his year 6 SAT’s a few year ago. We hadn’t really discussed SAT’s but I was aware of other parents getting all worked up and worrying that their kids were suffering from stress (while at the same time insisting that they practice, practice, practice). My own son was pretty chilled but did think that his teacher was stressed out. My strategy (basically ignoring the whole thing) seemed to work – he did incredibly well in his SAT’s but, please, don’t take parenting advice from me – it will only end in tears.

We all want the best for our kids and we want to protect them as much as we can. I can’t help thinking, however, that we often transfer our own anxieties on to them – maybe there’s a parent mental health crisis – our desire to protect is negatively impacting on the wellbeing of our children.

3. Schools don’t really know how to deal with anxiety.

The last school I worked at would allow anxious students to sit their exams in small groups and away from the main exam hall (I’m not sure if they still do this). Each year the small groups got bigger. From a psychological perspective this strategy makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, especially as many of the students were unable to identify what it was about the exam that triggered their anxiety (and I suspect, in many circumstances, students were mistaking nerves for anxiety). Other schools might use relaxation training or mindfulness but I have my doubts about both as universally appropriate.

Ironically, one strategy that will probably work is to test more (not less). One of the problems with exams is that they represent an unusual situation and, generally speaking, human beings are never that keen on rarely experienced situations. Regular low stakes testing is not only good for the memory but it should also work for test anxiety by normalising the test environment. In psychological terms this is known as the FEAR (Face Everything And Recover) strategy – make low stakes testing the daily norm and gradually raise the stakes. High stakes testing is here to stay so we’re better off dealing with that rather than engaging in a fruitless attempt to get rid of it.

(There are other useful strategies but I’m not going to list them now).

Finally, human beings are pretty resilient – let’s face it, we’ve survived this long against the odds. If there is a child mental health crisis it’s only because incidents of psychological distress have increased world-wide and across all age groups – just because big humans act in a certain way it doesn’t mean little humans shouldn’t. You can accuse Big Pharma of wanting to medicate the planet but I would rather think that it’s to do with the normalisation of abnormal behaviour and better diagnosis of mental illness than a global conspiracy.

As I said, just some thoughts. Feel free to disagree and I’ll feel free to ignore you. I’ll leave you with my quote of the day from Tim O’Brien:

When someone feels overwhelmed or engulfed by life’s challenges a kind word or an act of kindness from others will travel a long way.