Monthly Archives: August 2014

The psychology of Education: Bring on the ‘hard’ questions.

prometheus-hard-questionI have been somewhat amazed by the way many teachers have recently become interested in the psychology of learning and teaching. Specifically, many teachers and edubloggers have embraced the role of cognitive psychology and I’ve lost count of the number of blog posts dedicated to cognitive processes. I say cognitive ‘processes’ but what I actually mean is one specific process – memory.

Of course, cognitive psychology encompasses much more than memory and I think there is always the danger that other aspects of cognition (e.g. attention, perception, intelligence and language acquisition) will become neglected topics within the educational community. My greatest concern is that other psychological aspects of learning, not thought of as cognitive, will become all but forgotten.

Broadly speaking, I consider myself to be a cognitive psychologist (or cognitive ‘scientist’ if that sounds ‘sexier’) even though my research with PERC is more concerned with emotion – a topic that tends to nervously wonder around the fringes of cognitive psychology. Emotions impact on cognitive and non-cognitive skills in many ways and represent what I call the ‘hard’ questions of learning.

Questions like:

    • Why are some learners more motivated/engaged/interested?
    • What role do positive and negative emotions play in academic achievement?
    • Why do some learners ‘bounce back’ from adversity while others are unable to cope with even minor setbacks?

If we are to design interventions based on these questions we first need to understand the underlying processes. Testing memory interventions is pretty straightforward and they lend themselves well to RCT-type testing (that’s partly due to over 40 years of serious memory research). The ‘hard’ questions don’t, partly because we don’t fully understand the processes involved ,which in turn makes the design (and subsequent trialling) of interventions problematic.

Despite many of the problems, there are certain things that research has discovered.

These include:

  • Test anxiety has a negative impact on GCSE results (Putwain, 2008)
  • Children who display higher levels of resilience suffer less from test anxiety, which in turn leads to higher levels of academic achievement (David W. Putwain, Nicholson, Connors, & Woods, 2013)
  • Resilient individuals are able to use positive emotions to ‘bounce back’ from negative experiences (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2011)
  • Positive emotions such as ‘interest’ enhance and broaden cognitive functioning (Fredrickson, 2004)
  • Worry and anxiety reduce the effectiveness of certain components of working memory (Ganley & Vasilyeva, 2014)
  • Positive emotions are more likely to enhance academic achievement when they are mediated by self-regulated learning and motivation (Mega, Ronconi, & De Beni, 2014)

I refer to these, as ‘hard’ questions partly because the ways in which we investigate them don’t lend themselves particularly well to the methodology of cognitive psychology. The problem is that scientific psychologists remain wary of introspective methods due to their subjective nature, so they have to design and implement more innovative methods in order to collect data. Qualitative research can be useful, but we exist in a world where quantitative methods are preferable. At the same time, more positivist methods suffer from issues of ecological validity and generalizability.

According to an Education Endowment Foundation report, the role of positive emotions in education “deserves more attention” as does the relationship between positive emotions and other non-cognitive skills (Gutman, 2013). Nevertheless, many might view such research as less deserving because it isn’t looking at the role of performance directly. It also tends to look at the role of individuals rather than groups – it’s more concerned with looking at differences between individuals rather than similarities.

As teachers we recognise that our class is made up of individuals who often react very differently in the same situation. All our students come to us with histories, traits and differing skills sets and while many will fit the ‘norm’, many will be the outliers – that’s where the interesting stuff resides.


Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367–78. doi:10.1098/rstb.2004.1512
Ganley, C. M., & Vasilyeva, M. (2014). The role of anxiety and working memory in gender differences in mathematics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(1), 105–120. doi:10.1037/a0034099
Gutman, L. M. (2013). The impact of non-cognitive skills on outcomes for young people: Literature review. Education Endowment Foundation
Mega, C., Ronconi, L., & De Beni, R. (2014). What makes a good student? How emotions, self-regulated learning, and motivation contribute to academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(1), 121–131. doi:10.1037/a0033546
Putwain, D. W. (2008). Test anxiety and GCSE performance: the effect of gender and socio?economic background. Educational Psychology in Practice, 24(4), 319–334. doi:10.1080/02667360802488765
Putwain, D. W., Nicholson, L. J., Connors, L., & Woods, K. (2013). Resilient children are less test anxious and perform better in tests at the end of primary schooling. Learning and Individual Differences, 28, 41–46. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2013.09.010
Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2011). Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320–333. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.86.2.320.Resilient


Thinking about… Feedback

If feedback is one of the most effective routes to academic achievement then why do so many teachers do it so badly?

I’ve been teaching 6th Form students for a decade now and I’ve tried many different methods of written feedback. Early in my career I quickly realised two things:

  • Most students don’t read feedback
  • All students read the grade they have been awarded for the task

This in itself is an interesting observation seeing as research (Harks, Rakoczy, Hattie, Besser, & Klieme, 2014) has discovered that so-called ‘grade orientated feedback’ is far less effective than ‘process orientated feedback’ (the latter emphasising the type of feedback that aims to improve outcomes by giving specific targeted and goal-orientated advice). Furthermore, process orientated feedback not only has a positive effect on achievement, it also positively impacts on emotionally–based processes such as interest.

In an attempt to curb this I have, over the years, omitted the grade and given process-orientated feedback only, but because students often appear to be more concerned with how well they have done rather than how they can improve this tended to lead to criticism from students, parents and (on one occasion some years ago) school management. More recently I instructed students that they could have their grade only if they came to me to discuss the feedback – needless to say, few were motivated enough to follow up on this. I’m assuming that the unwillingness to discuss the feedback was as much to do with a fear of failure (they actually didn’t want to know the grade) so that their actions constituted a method of self-handicapping rather than genuine laziness.

The purpose of process-orientated feedback.

Feedback should be elaborated sufficiently to help the learner change erroneous knowledge components and, thus, improve achievement (Harks et al., 2014)

Feedback should offer information that contributes to the satisfaction of the student’s basic need to feel competent (Ryan & Deci, 2000)

Feedback, therefore, has both meta-cognitive and motivational components so content should reflect both of these. Hattie has suggested that process orientated feedback should ask the following questions:

Where am I going (learning intentions/goals/success criteria)?

How am I going (self-assessment/self-evaluation)?

Where next (progression/new goals)?

(Hattie, 2009)


A Model of Feedback (Hattie, 2009)

These questions then feed into the other growth components I have discussed previously:

Growth Goals (Personal Bests)


Implicit Theories of Intelligence (Mindset)

Academic Buoyancy (day-to-day resilience)

Feedback needs to be ‘active’.

Effective marking and detailed feedback can be time-consuming, especially with A-level students who are often required to produce extended pieces of writing. I encourage my students to word-process essays so that I can add comments in the margin as well as general comments/targets at the end (and a grade when appropriate). This can sometimes mean that each essay can take up to 30-45 minutes to mark, comment on, set targets and grade and with class numbers ranging from 20 to 25 students… well you can do the maths. All this, of course, with the probability that most students won’t read any of the comments.

Microsoft Word allows the insertion of comments

Microsoft Word allows the insertion of comments – but will anyone read them?

Making feedback ‘active’ can both reduce the time taken to mark each piece of work and ensure that (most) students read the feedback. I recently came across this wonderful resource on Tom Sherrington’s blog (@headguruteacher) – I’m especially interested in test-driving the first suggestion.


When feedback is executed effectively it can have a major impact on achievement. The EEF Toolkit suggests an increase of around 8 months but offers the following considerations.


Bringing it all together.

For me, feedback is one of suite of tools that combine to produce increases in achievement, motivation and study skills. No strategy exists in isolation and feedback is only one component of a larger whole. Effective feedback encourages a growth mindset by being explicit about ways to improve while those students who adopt a fixed mindset appear to be less responsive to feedback (especially when it calls into question their ability) and less resilience (buoyant). Meta-cognitive strategies aid active feedback while the explicit use of growth goals motivate the learner to exceed their personal best by acting on the feedback.


Harks, B., Rakoczy, K., Hattie, J., Besser, M., & Klieme, E. (2014). The effects of feedback on achievement, interest and self-evaluation: the role of feedback’s perceived usefulness. Educational Psychology, 34(3), 269–290. doi:10.1080/01443410.2013.785384
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning. Routledge.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. The American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. Retrieved from