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


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

  1. teachingbattleground

    This seems a bit thin. While it might be uncontroversial to say that stress interferes with working memory, aren’t there a fair few studies regarding certain types of cognitive tasks actually being being performed better with negative emotions? As I understood it this was well enough established that that evolutionary psychologists have theorised that depression may have evolved due to its cognitive advantages.

    1. Marc Smith Post author

      Yes, stress can enhance cognitive tasks – but only to a point. It’s something called Yerkes-Dodson law. Low levels of psychological arousal improve cognitive function up to a optimum level, it then levels off and then too much stress produces a negative impact. Biological and psychological arousal (fight-flight) is necessary and evolutionary. There is also some ‘evidence’ suggesting that depression and schizophrenia have evolutionary/cognitive advantages – but I have problems with evolutionary psychology.

      1. teachingbattleground

        Surely there’s more to negative emotions than just stress? One can be calm and unhappy.

        With regard to evolutionary psychology, I was appealing to the acceptance of the phenomena they were explaining rather than to their explanation. There are indeed problems with the explanations used in evolutionary psychology.

      2. Marc Smith Post author

        Of course, it’s just that a great deal of the research is related to stress (or, more specifically, test anxiety). The theory proposed by Fredrickson is (and, yes, it is a theory at the moment) that negative emotions narrow our options because they are based on instinctual drives – we can use fight/flight as an example but there will be others – on the other hand, positive emotions broaden our options. In terms of being unhappy, I would agree so long as it’s a general feeling of unhappiness rather than a clinical diagnosis of depression (anxiety and depression usually co-exist). Fear of failure would be another negative emotion which (usually) results in self-handicapping but could also lead to over-striving.

  2. jonpatrick

    I was once warned by a lecturer to take anything from evolutionary psychology with a cement truck full of salt. It’s completely unfalsifiable and can be used to explain any psychological phenomena. And if it explains everything, it explains nothing.

    1. Marc Smith Post author

      Evolutionary psychology is post-hoc and I’m really not a fan – I would agree with your lecturer.

  3. Pingback: Education Panorama (October ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

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