Learning and emotions: It’s not all about the positive.

Emotions play an important role in learning and performance, influencing a range of cognitive processes related to academic learning. These include attention, memory storage, retrieval and problem solving. While research has focussed on the effects of positive versus negative mood on cognitive processes, it has done this without drawing distinctions between specific, discrete mood states and emotions. It has been argued (Pekrun, 2006) that the distinction is less about positive and negative emotions but rather about the degree of activation implied. Pekrun further proposes the existence of four specific groups of emotions: Positive-Activating, Positive-Deactivating, Negative-Activating and Negative-Deactivating. Anxiety, therefore, can motivate a student to invest effort to avoid failure. Positive and negative emotional states consume attentional resources by focussing attention on the object of the emotion and this consumption of resources result in fewer resources being available for task completion, negatively impacting on achievement. To illustrate this point one can consider the student preparing for an exam and the worry that exists about the possibility of failure. Worry distracts attention away from the task, leads to off-task thinking and consumes cognitive resources that should be utilised for exam preparation. The resource consumption effect is therefore bound to emotions that have task-extraneous objects, producing task-irrelevant thinking (Meinhardt & Pekrun, 2003). Positive task related emotions, however, such as curiosity and engagement of learning view the task as the object of the emotion and focuses attention on the task and away from task irrelevant thinking. This results in working memory resources being directed towards task completion and producing an experience of flow (Pekrun et al., 2011). While positive emotions reduce the likelihood of task irrelevant thoughts, negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and boredom have been linked to task irrelevant thinking and reduced flow. This suggests that emotions have a profound effect on the attentional engagement of academic tasks.

Emotions exist in order to prepare us to do something or carry out some kind of activity.

Fear, for example, can trigger the fight or flight response and the accompanying behavioural and physiological components related to it. Positive emotions such as joy and interest motivate exploratory behaviour and expand our action repertoire (Fredrickson, 2004), allowing the envisaging of a greater number of options through the triggering of higher order thinking skills. Emotion, therefore, influence students’ motivational engagement and positive academic emotions (e.g. enjoyment of learning, hope and pride) and relate positively to students’ interest and intrinsic motivation. Negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and boredom, relate negatively to motivational variables (Pekrun et al., 2011). According to Pekrun’s Cognitive-Motivational model, motivational effects may be different for different types of positive and negative emotions. Activating-positive emotions such as joy, hope and pride strengthen motivational processes while deactivating-negative emotions such as hopelessness and boredom that undermine motivation (Pekrun et al., 2011). For some emotions, however, the interaction is more complex, such as with deactivating positive emotions (e.g. relief and relaxation) and activating negative emotions (e.g. anger and anxiety). When taking such emotions into account we have to consider both short and long-term commitments, for example, relaxed contentment following success will likely reduce immediate (short-term) motivation to re-engage with learning activities but may well strengthen long-term motivation to re-engage at a later time.


The activation of negative emotions can reduce intrinsic motivation but can strengthen extrinsic motivation by investing effort in order to avoid failure. This is especially so when there is a higher expectation that outcomes (prevent failure, attain success) are likely to be successful, however, the impact of these emotions on overall motivation can be variable (Turner & Schallert, 2001). Despite the complex nature of the evidence, however, it appears clear that many different cognitive and motivational mechanisms come together to contribute to the effects of emotions and academic achievement.

Positive emotions don’t always motivate and don’t always lead to academic achievement.

Positive emotions can, in some circumstances, be thought of as maladaptive rather than adaptive mechanisms. For example, if pupils frame situations with unrealistic parameters it could lead to the conclusion that effort is unnecessary and create the illusions that all is well. If one adopts the position that feeling good is the preferred option, then these emotions could create lazy learners. What the position fails to take into account is the distinction between activating and deactivating positive emotions as posited by the Cognitive Motivational Model (Pekrun, 2006). Motivation, engagement and academic achievement, therefore is highly dependent upon the type of positive emotion (activating versus deactivating). According to the model, the activation of task related enjoyment (and activating positive emotion) triggers intrinsic motivation, which in turn promotes relational memory processing and facilitates the use of flexible learning strategies and self-regulation. The likelihood is that these mechanisms exert positive effects on overall performance under many task conditions. It then follows that deactivating positive emotions, such as relief and relaxation, can reduce task attention. These variable motivation effects can then lead to superficial information processing making effects on overall achievement more variable.

Certainly, evidence supports the view that activating positive emotions enhance achievement and research has found that enjoyment of learning correlates moderately positively with school pupils and college students’ academic performance. Furthermore, students’ feelings of enjoyment hope and pride correlated positively with interest, effort invested learning, elaboration of learning material and self-regulation of learning (Pekrun et al., 2011). Positive emotions have also been shown to correlate positively with students’ cognitive engagement (Pekrun et al., 2009). However, some have expressed caution as the link between emotions and achievement most likely has a reciprocal influence, in that emotions influence achievement and outcomes (both positive and negative) influence emotions. The relationship, therefore, is likely to reciprocal rather than unidirectional in nature (Pekrun et al., 2014).

Negative emotions have been found promote task irrelevant thinking, which in turn reduces, the cognitive resources needed to complete a task and undermines motivation. However, negative emotions can also induce motivation as means to avoid failure by triggering the use of more rigid learning strategies. Nevertheless, the effects of the resulting academic performance depends very much on task conditions and may be variable. This could be seen as similar to the proposed effects of positive deactivating emotions. It has been found that anxiety has a detrimental effect on performance on complex tasks that place high demands on cognitive resources (such as IQ tests) but does not appear to have the same impact on easy or less complex tasks (Zeidner, 1998). Field studies have found that test anxiety correlates moderately negatively with student performance with a 5 – 10% variance in achievement scores (as explained by self-reporting methods)(Zeidner, 1998). Similarly, links between test anxiety and achievement may be caused by the effects of success and failure on the development of test anxiety in addition to the effects of anxiety on achievement. While longitudinal studies into test anxiety have been limited, those studies that have been carried out using such methods suggest that test anxiety and student achievement are linked by reciprocal causation across school years (Meece et al., 1990). Furthermore, zero and positive correlations have often been found suggesting that anxiety can exert ambiguous effects.

The role of resilience.

One suggestion to account for ambiguities in that anxiety may facilitate overall performance in those who are more resilient and are able to productively use the motivational impetus provided for by anxiety. Similar correlations have been found using other negative emotions, including the suggestion that the negative deactivating emotion of shame is negatively associated with academic achievement and negatively predicts exam performance (Pekrun et al., 2002), even though the effects are likely to be variable (Turner & Schallert, 2001). Similarly, achievement related anger has been found to negatively correlate with academic performance in some studies, implying that the underlying mechanisms may account for more than just negative effects (Boekaerts, 1993; Pekrun et al., 2011).

It’s not (always) about the positive.

The role of emotions in learning is, therefore, more nuanced than the simplistic negative-positive emotions dichotomy. While we might aspire to rid all anxiety from learners, it’s clear that even these such seemingly destructive emotions can play a positive role. Similarly, relaxation can lead to complacency and over-confidence despite the current desire to promote it. It may be more productive, therefore, to target those emotions that are useful rather than those we view as positive.


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Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Frenzel, A.C., Barchfeld, P. & Perry, R.P. (2011). Measuring emotions in students’ learning and performance: The Achievement Emotions Questionnaire (AEQ). Contemporary Educational Psychology. [Online]. 36 (1). p.pp. 36–48. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2010.10.002.

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Titz, W. & Perry, R.P. (2002). Positive Emotions in Education. In: E. Frydenberg (ed.). Beyond Coping: Meeting Goals, Visions and Challenges. pp. 149–173.

Pekrun, R., Hall, N.C., Goetz, T. & Perry, R.P. (2014). Boredom and Academic Achievement: Testing a Model of Reciprocal Causation. Journal of Educational Psychology. [Online]. Available from: http://doi.apa.org/getdoi.cfm?doi=10.1037/a0036006. [Accessed: 26 March 2014].

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Zeidner, M. (1998). Test Anxiety: The State of the Art. Springer Science & Business Media.


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