Category Archives: Emotions

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.

 

 

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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.

Emotion and the Testing Effect.

Learning is an emotional as well as a cognitive process. The problem is that cognition is easier to measure than emotion, which is probably why there are more papers on learning and cognition than there are on learning and emotion (perhaps it’s also part of the ‘publish or die’ culture). Some brave souls, however, have ventured into the realms of cognition and emotion, more specifically the relationship between emotion and memory.

Like much of the research into memory, researchers interested in this interplay tend to lean towards positivistic methods (that is, laboratory experiments), however, they also often use more real-world experimentation, especially in the study of autobiographical memory. There is also an increase in the number of researchers utilising brain-scanning devices (particularly fMRI) to help identify neurological components, such at the interplay between the hippocampus and the amygdala.

Interestingly (and particularly important for those who unquestioningly support the use of laboratory experiments), in lab studies negative emotions tend to be remembered better while in studies of autobiographical memory the reverse is the case. This contradiction throws up an immense number of questions surrounding something psychologists describe as ‘ecological validity’ – the extent to which results in the lab (a highly controlled, artificial environment) directly relate to what is seen in the ‘real world’ (classrooms, for example). Early studies on the ‘Testing Effect’ (causing quite a buzz in education circles at the moment) relied heavily on the laboratory studies with low ecological validity; more recent studies carried out in classroom settings (high ecological validity) appear to support these earlier findings, but this isn’t the case with all studies (cautionary note!).

Roediger  has consistently shown that retrieval has the ability to modify memory and promote long-term learning, in fact, the testing effect has found that tests enhance later retention more than additional study of the material (e.g. Roediger & Karpicke, 2006) although is some circumstances it can also result in the ‘learning’ of incorrect information (Marsh et al., 2007 & my previous post).

But is there an emotional component to the testing effect or is it just about the memory?

More specifically, could eliciting an emotional response aid memory consolidation and enhance the testing effect?

Finn and Roediger (2011) found that when negative emotional pictures were presented immediately after success on a retrieval test, later test performance was enhanced. But there was no enhancement for those who were shown neutral pictures or a blank screen. It would therefore appear that the period immediately following retrieval plays an important role in determining later retention. In addition, a later study found that even when the answer given was wrong, the presentation of the picture still enhanced memory consolidation after feedback was given (Finn et al., 2012). Even when the original answer is wrong elaborate processing still takes place following feedback and the presentation of the emotional image. Later recall of the correct answer is enhanced (supporting the test effect) as long as the retrieval attempt is effortful enough to trigger necessary reconsolidation, the picture then activates the emotional regions of the brain which enhance the testing effect and aid later recall. Roediger has also suggested that the emotion-eliciting picture need not be presented externally and that simply bringing to mind an emotional image should impact memory enhancement in the same way.

How realistically these techniques can be applied to other settings is debatable and, like all early research, there is always a degree of speculation involved. Nevertheless, the study does add to the growing evidence suggesting that emotion can enhance cognition and therefore has an important role to play in teaching and learning.

References:

Finn, B., Roediger, H. & Rosenzweig, E. (2012). Reconsolidation from negative emotional pictures: Is successful retrieval required? Memory & Cognition. 40 (7). p.pp. 1031–1045.

Finn, B. & Roediger, H.L. (2011). Enhancing Retention Through Reconsolidation. Psychological Science. 22 (6). p.pp. 781–786.

Marsh, E.J., Roediger, H.L., Bjork, R.A. & Bjork, E.L. (2007). The memorial consequences of multiple-choice testing. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 14 (2). p.pp. 194–199.

Roediger, H.R. & Karpicke, J.D. (2006). The Power of Testing Memory: Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 1 (3). p.pp. 181–210.

    

The Up Side Of Being Down

Let’s be honest, sometimes there is nothing worse than having to be around happy people, especially if those people insist on telling us to ‘cheer up’ or (god forbid) to ‘turn that frown upside-down’ (and please don’t tell me how many muscles it takes to frown).

Despite some suggestions that happy children learn more effectively, the evidence remains pretty weak. Emotions are more complex and we can rarely apply such simple rules. Emotions ebb and flow and teenagers are especially prone to seemingly irrational emotional explosions and deep dark troughs of despair. While depression is often debilitating and should be identified early and treated appropriately, bouts of ‘low mood’ are rarely damaging and often fleeting.

I therefore dedicate this short post to those out there who revel in their occasional bouts of miserableness and offer some interesting trivia about this highly misunderstood emotion.

[Disclaimer: Some of the studies quoted aren’t that convincing but, then again, neither are the majority of those espousing the cognitive benefits of happiness]

1. Happy People Are Lazy Thinkers.

Happy people tend to rely on superficial strategies in order to collect information from the outside world and are more likely to employ stereotypes than their unhappy counterparts.

Christian Unkelbach conducted an experiment using a ‘shoot ‘em up’ computer game where participants were told to shoot characters carrying guns. The interesting part of the experiment was that some of the characters were wearing turbans (displaying the stereotypical image of Muslim). Happy people were more likely to shoot the characters wearing turbans (even if they were unarmed) than less happy individuals. Apart from revealing some very sad truths about the destructive nature of stereotyping, the so-called ‘Turban Effect’ also suggests that people who display higher levels of positive affect are less likely too judge the situation in any real depth, unconsciously choosing instead to activate stereotypes stored in long-term memory, fuelled by current events and media representations.

2. Sadness Enhances Memory.

Research conducted by Elizabeth Kensinger, a psychology professor at Boston College, discovered that negative life events are remembered better than positive ones, suggesting that negative affect actually enhances memory. Joseph Forgas, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales, asked people to recall items they had seen in a shop. In the first condition the task was carried out on one of those grey rainy days when most of us feel a little bit down and perhaps even in a bit of a bad mood. In the second condition, and in an identical situation, the task was carried out on a bright sunny day. Forgas found that the rainy day condition resulted in a larger recall tally and that memories for items were in much greater detail than the same task carried out on a sunny day. The suggestion is that while positive mood impairs memory, negative affect somehow enhances it. Convinced? No, me neither. Perhaps the participants in the second condition were just eager to get out into the sun and enjoy the good weather, impairing their attention and making them impatient?

3. Sad People Are Less Influenced By Misleading Information.

Participants were shown a photograph of either a car crash or a wedding. Later on the same participants were asked to recall either a happy memory or a sad memory from their past in order to shift their mood into either negative or positive affect. They were then asked a series of questions about the photographs, including some misleading information (for example, asking about an object that didn’t appear in the photograph). It was discovered that those participants who had recalled a negative memory from their past (the negative-affect group) were better able to recall the original details and were much less likely to be influenced by the misleading information. Participants in the positive-affect group, on the other hand, were much more likely to recall details that had been contaminated with the false information.

4. Sad People Are More Motivated.

The problem with happiness is that it makes us too comfortable; we strive for it and (some of us) eventually reach our destination only to find that it’s so damn good that we want things to stay exactly how they are. Becoming settled in the status quo means that there is little motivation to move on, in fact, moving on might lead to less happiness. Sad people, on the other hand, have something to strive for and aim towards: that small but personally significant achievement that lifts the spirit for a moment, filling us with good vibes and a more acute feeling of self-worth. Happy people have no real need to deal with challenge in their environment while those with a more negative mood are more motivated to challenge themselves and push for change in order to lift their mood.

In another study conducted by Forgas, participants watched either a happy film or sad film and were then given a demanding cognitive task to complete. The task included a number of questions that had no time limit, so participants could spend as long on them as they wished. They were then assessed on total time spent on the questions, the number of correct answers and the number of questions attempted. Those participants who watched the happy film (let’s call them the ‘happy group’) spent less time on the questions, attempted fewer questions and received a lower score than the ‘sad group’. It seems that people are less motivated to exert effort if they are already experiencing a positive mood, those with a more negative mood, however, have more to gain from persevering in terms of elevating their negative affect.

So next time you’re in a low mood and that annoyingly bubbly person invades your precious space in an attempt to cheer you up, remember that you brain is working more productively than a head full of fairies and unicorns.

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.

Pekrun

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.

References:

Boekaerts, M. (1993). Anger in relation to school learning. Learning and Instruction. [Online]. 3 (4). p.pp. 269–280. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/095947529390019V\nhttp://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=MImg&_imagekey=B6VFW-4691WMR-7-1&_cdi=6021&_user=4429&_pii=095947529390019V&_origin=&_coverDate=12/31/1994&_sk=999969995&view=c&wchp=dGLzVzz-zSkWz&.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences. [Online]. 359 (1449). p.pp. 1367–78. Available from: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1693418&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract. [Accessed: 24 May 2014].

Meece, J.L., Wigfield, A. & Eccles, J.S. (1990). Predictors of math anxiety and its influence on young adolescents’ course enrollment intentions and performance in mathematics. Journal of Educational Psychology. [Online]. 82 (1). p.pp. 60–70. Available from: <Go to ISI>://WOS:A1990CW37200008.

Meinhardt, J. & Pekrun, R. (2003). Attentional resource allocation to emotional events: An ERP study. Cognition & Emotion. 17 (3). p.pp. 477–500.

Pekrun, R. (2006). The Control-Value Theory of Achievement Emotions: Assumptions, Corollaries, and Implications for Educational Research and Practice. Educational Psychology Review. [Online]. 18 (4). p.pp. 315–341. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/s10648-006-9029-9. [Accessed: 27 July 2014].

Pekrun, R., Elliot, A.J. & Maier, M. a. (2009). Achievement goals and achievement emotions: Testing a model of their joint relations with academic performance. Journal of Educational Psychology. 101 (1). p.pp. 115–135.

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].

Turner, J.E. & Schallert, D.L. (2001). Expectancy-value relationships of shame reactions and shame resiliency. Journal of Educational Psychology. [Online]. 93 (2). p.pp. 320–329. Available from: http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.une.edu.au/docview/614356113?accountid=17227\nhttp://gr6md6ku7c.search.serialssolutions.com/?SS_Source=3&amp;genre=article&amp;sid=ProQ:&amp;atitle=Expectancy?value+relationships+of+shame+reactions+and+shame+resiliency.&.

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

5 Ways emotions impact on learning.

Oddly, we often neglect the impact of emotions on the learning process. Humans are emotion driven animals and our emotional behaviour has developed at part of the evolutionary process, so why would we overlook such a vital part of the jigsaw. Here are five ways that emotions might help or hinder learning in our students – and some of them might surprise you.

1. Anxiety lowers mean GCSE scores.

Dave Putwain (Putwain et al., 2015) and colleagues investigated the role of test anxiety on GCSE scores and academic buoyancy (daily resilience). They recruited a sample 705 year 11 students and compared self-report data for academic buoyancy and test anxiety with scores in English, Maths and Science. They found that the worry component of test anxiety predicted lower mean GCSE scores while academic buoyancy predicted a higher mean GCSE score.

2. Fear of Failure results in self-handicapping.

While the relationship between fear of failure, self-handicapping and academic achievement is complex; research does tend to agree that those students with higher levels of fear of failure are more likely to employ self-handicapping strategies. Academic self-handicapping (or academic self-sabotage) relates to pre-emptive strategies used by students to avoid failure and safeguard self-esteem. For example, a student might say they were ill so they couldn’t revise for the test – this makes any failure the results of ‘being ill’ rather than not being ‘clever enough’.

3. Boredom can increase creativity.

Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman at the University of Central Lancashire (Mann & Cadman, 2014) conducted a study where participants were given either a boring or interesting activity (independently validated) and then asked to complete a creative task. They found that those who completed the boring activity produced more creative responses on the task than those who carried out the interesting activity.

…However…

4. Some ‘types’ of boredom mimic the symptoms of learned helplessness.

Thomas Goetz and colleagues (Goetz et al., 2013) used experience sampling to collect data on participant’s level of boredom.

(From my previous post, outlining the study in more detail)

Goetz and his team supplied each participant with Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) loaded with specially designed software. The PDA’s would then emit a number of audible sounds throughout the day and participants would complete a questionnaire that appeared on the screen (the procedure was slightly different between the two group – university or high school students). The questionnaires required likert-responses to identify levels of boredom, wellbeing, satisfaction, enjoyment, anger and anxiety. If they identified themselves as being bored, they were asked a second set of questions on arousal and valence (the extent to which they were attracted or repelled by the task).

Results suggested the existence of a fifth type of boredom – apathetic boredom, which appeared widely prevalent amongst both groups of students. The interesting point here is that the team identified apathetic boredom as possessing characterises related to learned-helplessness (a condition associated with depression), making apathetic boredom a very unpleasant experience indeed.

5. Test Anxiety can impair working memory function.

Eelynn Ng and Kerry Lee examined the impact of testing on working memory function (Ng & Lee, 2015). 128 11-year-old children completed mental arithmetic tasks at varying levels of working memory load under high and low stress conditions. Performance effectiveness was measured using accuracy of the answers and completion time.

They found that trait test anxiety had ‘a direct and detrimental effect of working memory’.

References:

Goetz, T., Frenzel, A.C., Hall, N.C., Nett, U.E., Pekrun, R. & Lipnevich, A. a. (2013). Types of boredom: An experience sampling approach. Motivation and Emotion. [Online]. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/s11031-013-9385-y. [Accessed: 1 April 2014].

Mann, S. & Cadman, R. (2014). Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative? Creativity Research Journal. [Online]. 26 (2). p.pp. 165–173. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10400419.2014.901073.

Ng, E. & Lee, K. (2015). Effects of trait test anxiety and state anxiety on children’s working memory task performance. Learning and Individual Differences. [Online]. Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1041608015000941.

Putwain, D.W., Daly, A.L., Chamberlain, S. & Sadreddini, S. (2015). Academically buoyant students are less anxious about and perform better in high-stakes examinations. British Journal of Educational Psychology. [Online]. p.p. n/a–n/a. Available from: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/bjep.12068.

Researching the ‘emotional learner’

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?).

Measuring emotions.

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.

Why bother?

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].