To what extent do emotions impact on academic achievement? This is a question I’ve been grappling with for nearly two years. More specifically, can positive emotions help students to cope more appropriately with day-to-day setbacks (daily resilience/academic buoyancy) and, if so, how can we nurture such emotions?
American psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has proposed that positive emotions help us in a number of ways. Specifically, while negative emotions such as fear narrow our cognitive processes by triggering our survival instincts, positive emotions work in the opposite direction. Interest, for example, triggers our desire to explore and encourages us to re-frame failure and setbacks in a more positive way. Furthermore, Reinhard Pekrun and his colleagues at the University of Munich have found that positive emotions are positively associated with engagement while negative emotions such as boredom, anxiety and hopelessness predict negative academic outcomes.
What I’ve quite rapidly begun to realise is that emotions are slippery things – they just won’t keep still – especially in teenagers! Another problem is that there are just too many emotions to measure, so you have to narrow it down to specifics. I initially decided to look at the role of boredom in academic buoyancy but then decided it might be more positive to look at interest. I finally settled on the exploration of interest and how it relates to the way pupils cope with daily setbacks (e.g. does intrinsic interest in a particular subject lead to a more positive response to, say, failing a test in that subject?).
I’m now attempting to work out how I can measure all of this. On a very simple level I’m trying to identify a correlation between interest and academic buoyancy – both of which can be measured using previous validated and widely used scales. I’ve decided to recruit a sample of year 12 students embarking on a course in psychology for the first time. They’ll be asked to complete an on-line questionnaire each week for around eight weeks (see below if you’d like to be involved).
Yes, I can already hear the objections. Not only am I looking for a correlation (which doesn’t necessarily imply causation) but also I’m using self-completion questionnaires that are prone to social desirability factors and demand characteristics. The longitudinal nature of the study should help here, so long as the sample is significantly large (although this will result in huge data sets – this is both a positive thing in terms of the data but negative in terms of the time needed to collate and analyse).
Of course, I could add weight to any results (and, let’s be honest, there is no guarantee that I will support my hypothesis) by conducting a second study within a laboratory environment – I’ll lose some ecological validity but I’ll gain some control. If the results of my (as yet undefined) study 2 correlate with the results of the first study then I might be on to something.
Each year we are told that more and more young people are seeking help for stress and anxiety caused by the proliferation of high stakes testing. Teachers are in a position to identify possible psychological problems but should not be expected to become amateur counsellors. If help is needed professionals should provide it and it’s becoming clear that external agencies will become more involved in pupil wellbeing over the next few years. As the stakes get higher so will the psychological problems experienced by young people and I suspect there will be a huge number of ‘consultants’ offering interventions that have been neither tested nor validated in any meaningful way. The more data we have on aspects beyond the classroom the more we are able to target useful interventions. Viewing pupils as ‘emotional learners’ could perhaps be just one way of providing evidence based programs that nurture both wellbeing and academic achievement.
[Could your school help with my research? I’m looking for Year 12 Psychology students new to the subject in September 2015 (NB have not studied GCSE Psychology) who would be prepared to complete a weekly online ‘diary’ for around 8 weeks. Contact via Twitter in the first instance @psychologymarc – more details to follow].