Tag Archives: education

Some fairly interesting stuff about boredom.

“Boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself.”

~ Søren Kierkegaard

Coworkers Getting BoredSome philosophers have much to say about boredom. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer didn’t really think much of it; “…for every human life,” he wrote in 1818, “is tossed backwards and forwards between pain and boredom”. Schopenhauer saw boredom as suffering, a reminder of the ultimate meaningless of human existence. To be fair to the gloomy Arthur, I have spent many hours of my life sat in meetings, pondering the meaning of life and reminding myself that with every tick of the clock I am one second closer to death. I think I have a propensity towards boredom, or at least a malfunctioning attention system (having checked my emails once and Twitter twice since I began writing this paragraph). Perhaps, as Kierkegaard suggests, I’m just refusing to be myself; sitting in mind-numbing meetings rather than getting up and leaving (which is usually what I really want to do). Many of us find boredom almost physically painful and even when we are engaged in an activity our minds begin to wander. We daydream; we ‘zone out’ and we flit from one activity to another. If, as adults, we find it painful to sit through meaningless meetings and as teachers we begin to nod off during a presentation on training day, then should we be critical of our pupils when they behave in a similar way? Should we make lessons lively and entertaining in order to ‘engage’? Furthermore, do we really understand the reasons why pupils get bored in the first place?

Organisational Psychologist Cynthia Fisher describes boredom as:

“an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a persuasive lack of interest and difficulty concentrating on the current activity”,

while psychologist Mark Leary offers a more concise definition:

“an affective experience associated with cognitive attentional processes”.

Both these definitions adequately describe my feelings of being bored, but suggest little about the motivational aspects of boredom – in that when I’m bored I feel a desire to escape the boredom by doing something (even if I don’t do anything) and the near tangible pain it appears to cause me. I recall sitting in a meeting that was scheduled to last one hour even though there wasn’t enough content to keep anyone there for that long (in fact I recall sitting in a great many meetings like this). As the seconds ticked by my mind began to wonder, resting upon all the work I had to do and becoming more and more anxious at the realisation that I was wasting valuable time. I doodled in my planner, checked my phone several times, closed my eyes for a few moments, I looked at my watch, the clock on the wall and the watch on the wrist of the person seated next to me. I could feel my heart rate quickening and palms becoming clammy as the stress response began to kick in – my pain was real; I was bored to the point of anxiety, I wanted to escape but protocol decreed that the meeting must last one hour, no more and no less. In fact, boredom can even cause us to inflict pain on ourselves. In a recent study Chantal Nederkoorn and her colleagues actually found that people would inflict painful electric shocks on themselves in order to relieve the symptoms of boredom. While I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a meeting that has inflicted so much psychological pain on me that I would want to inflict physical pain on myself, I’ve never had the equipment to do so. Perhaps I would given the opportunity.

Reinhard Pekrun feels my pain. The University of Munich psychologist defines boredom as:

“an affective state composed of unpleasant feelings, lack of stimulation and low physiological arousal.”

This pretty much sums up my experience although I would suggest that, at times, my arousal is high (I want to get out of that meeting!). Pekrun’s interest in boredom is also a little different from Fisher and Leary in that Pekrun is specifically interested in how boredom manifests itself in the classroom settings. Boredom, and people’s propensity towards it, has been linked to academic underachievement. Boredom also appears to be associated with other non-academic behaviours such as depression, anger, impulsivity and even pathological gambling and bad driving. While gambling and bad driving are unlikely to impact academic achievement, depression, anger and impulsivity might. According to Eric Dahlen of the University of Mississippi, boredom predicts a propensity to experience anger and also to display maladaptive anger expression, aggression and deficits in anger control. This suggests that boredom could lead to some behaviours teachers witness in the classroom, especially from those students who display higher levels of aggression and poor emotional regulation.

So are bored students simply not interested? Thomas Götz of the University of Konstanz, Germany thinks not. A lack of interest is neutral in that is doesn’t cause any emotional pain or discomfort whereas boredom can be emotionally distressing. They also have different motivational consequences; a student who lacks interest neither wishes to engage in an activity nor do they wish to avoid it, whereas, a bored student will feel compelled to escape the situation. Such behaviour led the late Daniel Berlyne to suggest that boredom results from high (not low) arousal. The behaviours arising from boredom, such as restlessness, agitation and emotional upset, motivates the individual to escape, perhaps by misbehaving, falling asleep or daydreaming. The classroom represents a closed system (there is no physical escape) whereas if you or I are at home and bored we could go for a walk or a drive or engage in other activities beyond our four walls.

Boredom, therefore, represents an academic emotion; an emotion that is tied to learning situations and achievement related activities. Common sense informs us that bored students aren’t learning efficiently because they aren’t fully engaged with the activities of the subject. However, there might be many reasons why pupils get bored and these reasons often differ between student and teacher. If you are a teacher you might have specific ideas about what creates boredom in your classroom; perhaps it’s certain topics within the subject that are boring or perhaps the delivery.

Elena Daschmann along with Thomas Götz and Robert Stupinsky were also interested in any differences between why teachers thought their students were bored and the explanations from the students themselves. They administered open-ended questionnaires to 111 grade nine students and conducted semi-structured interviews with 117 grade nine teachers in German schools, about what led to students’ boredom. Results overlapped somewhat, for example the relevance of the subject or the content of the specific topic. Some students directed the cause of their boredom to other students (others in the class being ‘too loud’, for example) while teachers suggested the size of the class had an impact. Some were unrelated to school (‘I was in a bad mood because of a boy,’ was one response) so perhaps we need to acknowledge that students bring their own baggage with them and that this can impact behaviour inside the classroom. The main reason for boredom cited by student was the continual monotony of the scheme, the going over of content everyday. Teachers, however, thought that boredom arose when pupils were over-challenged with ‘a nut that they can’t crack’ or under-challenged because the teacher was going over material the students felt they already knew.

However, the most startling difference was that while students identified the teacher as a source of boredom, the teachers themselves never did; ‘When the teacher is as boring as a sleeping pill,’ was one comment. Teachers therefore might have a reasonably good idea of the specific things that make their students bored, even though they don’t appear to see themselves as a source of the boredom. With such a small sample, it’s difficult to see if these results are universal but they do provide some indication about the disparity of boredom beliefs and the way in which multiple personal and public elements can feed it.

While the results described above are quite specific, more general models of boredom have been proposed:

Cynthia Fisher has proposed a three-pronged model based on aspects outside and within the individual and the fit between the two. Certain antecedents of boredom, suggests Fisher, lie outside the person, for example the task or the environmental conditions, while others inhabit the person. Aspects within the person are perhaps more complex but would certainly include personality. Genetic components unrelated to personality also play a role, specifically those related to academic achievement such as intelligence (as measured in terms of IQ). The third antecedent involves the fit between the external component and internal component. The fit is important because you need to gauge the complexity of the task with the ability of the individual to complete it; if the task is too hard then the student will feel overwhelmed, too easy and they will feel under-challenged.

Pekrun’s Control Value Theory also relates to both subjective and environmental factors. Boredom arises through the interplay between certain external determinants (such as quality of teaching) and individual internal appraisals. Learning environments are approached through aspects of personal control and subjective evaluation. For example, if teaching quality is poor and the students feel that they have little personal control of the situation, plus the student feels the task has little value, is meaningless or irrelevant to their needs the likelihood that they will be bored is increased. On the other hand, if the quality of teaching is high and the instructions are clear (the students have some kind of control) then whether or not the students become bored will be the result of perceived value and meaning of the task. In the study described above, one comment from a student was ‘I think German is the most pointless subject in general’, meaning that even if instruction and teaching were excellent, the perceived value of the subject was low and this was the antecedent of the boredom the student experienced. Unfortunately, this would imply that some subjects, or topics within subjects, would always be boring to some students, no matter how much of cabaret teachers try to stage.

Ultimately, teachers can circumvent boredom by ensuring that students are challenged, but not overly so. But teachers also need to take into account that you just can’t please some people.

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.


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.


Is Guessing the Answer?

In which year were the series of peace treaties known as the Peace of Westphalia signed?

Of course you could go and Google it, but it’s a year that is branded into my brain. Before studying for a degree in Psychology I was a student of International Relations and Politics and, seeing as the date was crucial in the development of international cooperation, it’s become one of those dates I will always remember.

Don’t know? Have a guess, you might get it right.

We’ve all said the same thing to our students, right? When their frightened faces look up in response to the sound of their name being called and stare at us like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a speeding car.

But is guessing helpful?

Elizabeth Loftus, cognitive psychologist extraordinaire and world-renowned expert on eyewitness testimony thinks not. In fact, she thinks guessing can be downright dangerous. In 1978 Loftus, along with Reid Hastie and Robert Landsman, found that when individuals are encouraged to guess on a test, their incorrect answer often crops up on a later test (Hastie et al., 1978).

Elizabeth Marsh and Henry Roediger (along with Robert and Elizabeth Bjork) also reached similar conclusions in their 2007 study, concluding that when people make errors on multiple choice tests the errors can persist on later cued-recall tests (when participants are given ‘cues’ to help them recall previously seen material) (Marsh et al., 2007)

These and other research studies have led leading cognitive psychologists and experts on eyewitness testimony to suggest that guessing can be dangerous because, when people guess, they might later recall their incorrect guesses as being correct. The problem, then, is one of memory; when people are forced to guess the answer on a test they often remember their guesses as being part of the original to be learned list, which perhaps explains why teachers continue to receive incorrect answers from students even when told that the answer they have given is wrong.

The problem with this, however, is that results can often be inconsistent. Other studies have identified the benefits of unsuccessful retrieval to learning. As long as the correct answer is, in the end, generated by the student or provided by the teacher then the error shouldn’t carry over to subsequent tests. Bridgid Finn found that when unsuccessful retrieval attempts were followed by feedback, long-term retention was better than when the correct answer was just given (Finn et al., 2012).

This shows that not only is the testing effect replicated, but also that feedback is vital in order to correct any errors or misconceptions (it also highlight the fallibility of memory, something for next time perhaps).

And the answer to the question?

The treaties brought to a close the series of related conflicts known as the Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to the signing of the treaties in 1648.


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

Hastie, R., Landsman, R. & Loftus, E.L. (1978). Eyewitness Testimony: The Danger of Guessing. Jurimetrics Journal. (Fall). p.pp. 1–8.

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.

Nurturing resilience in schools – The whole school approach.

You can’t seem to get away from the whole resilience thing at the moment. The government seems obsessed with it and I’ve noticed more private organisations popping up with some wild claims about producing resilient pupils (as if it were a thing you can instil). I’ve been investigating resilience in young people for a number of years now (and have read more academic papers on the subject than I can count.), and if I’ve come away with just one thing, it’s that the concept is far more complex than many seem to claim.

Some children are certainly more resilient than others – it takes a lot to knock them down, they just keep bouncing back up like Bandura’s bobo doll – the harder they get hit, the faster they rise. This is often the case with young people from high-risk and vulnerable backgrounds and this is where much of the early research into resilience was concentrated. Our views of resilience are often dependent on desired outcomes and I tend to describe resilience as more of an umbrella term (beneath which related concepts such as buoyancy and grit reside). Traditional resilience research goes back several decades and I’ve written about this research before, however, I haven’t written very much about the ways in which schools can provide environments that allow resilience to develop, and how the right environment can help our most vulnerable young people.

One thing we need to be clear about is that there is still some disagreement over the psychological nature of resilience as a construct: some researchers say resilience is a trait (a part of our personality) while others believe it to be an emergent process, often formed through the experience of adversity. What we do know is that no matter how harsh the environment in which young people are raised; no matter how high their vulnerability to debilitating psychological illness, many will survive without any long lasting adverse consequences and many well thrive within the harshest conditions.

Professor Sir Michael Rutter conducted research in London schools in the 1970’s that highlight the vital role school plays in protecting our most vulnerable children from extreme adversity. Rutter found that some schools were better than others at getting the most out of vulnerable children, especially those from dysfunctional and chaotic home lives.

The most successful schools:

  • Maintained appropriately high academic standards
  • Used effective incentives and rewards
  • Gave effective feedback, along with adequate praise from teachers
  • Ensured that all pupils were given the opportunity to be awarded positions of trust and responsibility

Children who attended schools displaying these characteristics were much less likely to develop emotional and behavioural problems despite severe deprivation and discord at home. There was also found to be a similarity in the characteristics of both home and school environments that were associated with greater resilience in children of divorced parents. Characteristics such as a responsive atmosphere and organised and predictable environment as well as clearly defined and consistently reinforced standards, rules and responsibilities appear to be common with the school and home lives of resilient children. For boys the most important factors were likely to be structure and control while for girls the most important factors were nurturing and assumption of responsibility.

It’s interesting how some schools have always managed to get the most out of their most vulnerable pupils without the need for ‘failure days’ or ‘resilience scorecards’. That’s not to say that targeted interventions aren’t useful, only that a whole school approach is more likely to be beneficial in the long-term. Coping with daily setbacks is another matter entirely (a resilience-related construct known as ‘academic buoyancy’), for which directed interventions are more appropriate.

Resilience, therefore, isn’t a thing you impose (or a box you tick); it’s a strength you encourage and nurture.

Masters and Performers

[This is a rather long post – sorry. It also may appear a little disjointed in places as it’s a small part of much larger work. I will update later with references]

Many teachers are familiar with the work of Carol Dweck and popularisation of her Mindset theory (I’ve blogged about it before). However, Dweck’s earlier pre-mindset research allows us to see how the theory developed and its connection with other areas such as emotion and helplessness.

Back in the 1980’s Dweck, along with Carol Diener, carried out several studies using fifth and sixth grade children in the United States. They divided the children into two groups based on the outcome a questionnaire, designed to identify those children who displayed helpless characteristics. The aim was to attempt to separate those children who showed persistence in the face of failure (the mastery-orientated approach) from those who tended not to persist when presented with the possibility of failing. The children would then be presented with a number of tasks ranging in difficulty in an attempt to see who would persist and who would give up. More importantly, Dweck and Diener also recorded the flow of the children’s thoughts and feelings as well as their performance.

This early research uncovered a number of fascinating behaviours related to learners and the learning process and highlights the dangers of helplessness. When children are comfortable with their learning and can complete tasks or problems successfully, they remain quite confident about their ability and intelligence – this is the case regardless of orientation. Setting goals too low may, therefore, create a false sense of success because challenge is negligible, however, increasing the level of challenge will trigger helpless behaviour in certain learners and mastery behaviour in others. Pupils categorised as helpless begin to act in dysfunctional and damaging ways when things start to get harder and success on the task becomes more elusive. One of the first things these students begin to do is denigrate their own abilities and blame their intelligence (or rather, their perceived lack of intelligence) on the inability to succeed. Dweck and Diener found that children made specific verbal attacks on their own ability such as ‘I guess I’m not very intelligent’ or ‘I’m no good at things like this’. In fact, one-third of the helpless group spontaneously denigrated their own intellectual ability while none of the mastery group resorted to such intense self-criticism.

Remember that these children had already had a string of successes and it was only when they hit problems and began to fail did they begin to lose faith in their own ability. Before they hit problems their performance was indistinguishable from that of the mastery group; they had rapidly discarded these earlier successes and decided that they weren’t clever enough even though their earlier success should have made them feel more confident about their ability. When asked how many problems they had solved successfully, the helpless children recalled more unsuccessful attempts – they remembered their performance as poorer than is actually was. In another study, students were presented with solvable problems first and difficult ones later. It was found that the helpless group were less likely to solve the later problems even though they were easier, suggesting that the helpless orientation is a reaction to failure that carries negative implications for the self. Furthermore, it works to impair ability and results in less effective cognitive strategies.

We can get a better insight into how helpless orientated students cope with failure by examining their on-going verbal responses during the task. Dweck and Diener tracked the thoughts and feelings of their participants as they solved the problems, in an attempt to gain insight into their thoughts and feelings. Change in attitude was rapid in the helpless group once the tasks got difficult and they started to fail. While the problems presented were solvable the children appeared quite pleased with themselves but when the problems became difficult they lost interest and complained of being bored. The ways in which they coped with the anxiety and self-doubt that exploded within them once they realised that they were having difficulties solving the problems, often involved the children drawing attention to other non-task related successes. In what appeared to be an attempt to counter the failure experienced in the experimental situation, some children would inform the researchers that they had been given and important part in the school play or had succeeded in some other activity unrelated to the task. Others would try to change the rules or give plausible explanations for giving the wrong answer. Even these young children were found to be making desperate attempts to safeguard their self-esteem, in other words, they were trying hard not to seem unintelligent. As a result, the helpless group displayed a significant deterioration in the strategies they used to solve the problems as they increased in difficulty. Interestingly, they didn’t appear to objectively decide that the task was too hard for them but increasingly condemned their own abilities, leading them descend into depression and anxiety.

Carol Dweck’s early work investigated the different ways in which helpless and goal orientated learners approached problems. Other psychologists working in the area of motivation and learning have identified two specific ‘goal orientations’ that appear to influence the way in which learners approach the goals set for or by them. The first is known as the ‘performance goal’ orientation (the ‘helpless’ group in the Dweck and Diener study and the orientation) while the second has been labelled the ‘mastery goal’ orientation. The primary aim of the performance goal learner is first and foremost to demonstrate their competence or to avoid looking incompetent. Furthermore, performers tend to select activities that are easier and therefore represent a higher chance of success. For performers, success is everything, even if that success comes about because they have chosen a task that is below their capabilities. Revising and preparing for exams might include constantly going over the same material because they already know it rather than moving onto to a topic they don’t fully understand. In a similar way, given the choice between a task that requires little cognitive investment and one that takes a great deal of effort and thought, the performer would be more likely to choose the latter. The performer might claim that a particular task is pointless or stupid or say that they just can’t be bothered with it. Those displaying a mastery goal orientation, however, are more likely to choose more challenging tasks and persist at them; the primary aim here is to attain a new skill, one that requires dedication and persistence. So the child who constantly complains that it’s pointless to become skilled at algebra because he is never going to use it again, is more than likely anxious about others in the class viewing him as unintelligent because he struggles with algebra, whereas another child perseveres because she wishes to master the techniques of algebra regardless of its future utiliy.

Andrew Elliot, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, further developed the view of master and performance orientations, in part due to the inconsistency of the evidence linking performance goals to a number of other motivational constructs. Elliot proposes a trichotomous model that further differentiates between performance-approach, performance-avoidance and mastery goal orientations. It’s important for us to understand that this separating out of the two performance goal orientations grew from the inconsistencies within the research involving the performance only goal orientation; essentially the original distinctions were unable to be explained in terms of research findings. Basically, performance-approach goal orientations represent the individuals’ attempts to demonstrate competence (through the strategies already discussed) while performance-avoidance orientations represent attempts for the learner to avoid being seen as incompetent. Goal orientations fundamentally alter the way learners view achievement situations, having a knock on effect on the ways in which individuals approach learning situations and, ultimately, achievement outcomes. While those students displaying performance-goal orientations will continue to avoid challenging tasks as a means of demonstrating competence, performance avoiders are more likely to disengage and withdraw from the learning process. The performance-avoidance orientation has also been linked to number of other outcomes including shallow processing, poor retention of information and performance decrements.

Mastery goal learners, on the other hand, are expected to enhance their achievement though placing a greater value on improving their skills and developing competencies. Not only that, but, as Andrew Elliot and Carol Dweck discovered, they are also more likely to display greater levels of persistence and employ more advanced cognitive strategies that lead to the deeper processing of information. Furthermore, empirical evidence has discovered that those students who focus more on trying to develop competence are more resilient in the face of challenge and are more likely to employ higher-level cognitive strategies such as elaboration, critical thinking and self-regulated learning. All this would suggest that a mastery goal orientation is directly related to higher levels of achievement; however, the evidence doesn’t necessarily support this view. Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and one of the foremost researchers into emotions and motivation, analysed 74 correlational studies, finding that only about 40 per cent of them showed a positive relationship between mastery orientation and academic achievement with five per cent showing a negative relationship. This would certainly suggest that there is some benefit to mastery goal orientation, but in research terms the results are not deemed statistically significant, in other words, the effect is too small, so we can’t be sure of any causal relationship. Frustratingly, there is also some concern over the relationship between performance-approach goals and academic outcomes, with some studies showing a positive correlation between performance-approach goals and cognitive regulation while other studies have found no significant relationship or even a negative relationship.

Inconsistent findings don’t necessarily mean the theory is flawed, it can mean that things are more complex or nuanced than the theory originally proposed. The research for both mastery goals and performance approach goals is in conflict with regards to academic outcomes; the findings for performance approach goals have also been inconsistent in term of persistence. If you remember, those students displaying a performance approach orientation were less likely to persist with a task once the going got tough and much of the research supports this view. However, while in many studies those performance-approach students were more likely to withdraw or opt out of a task and to withdraw their time and energy after experiencing failure, other studies found no significant relationship between performance-approach orientation and effort. Just to make things even more complicated, Elliot found a positive relationship between performance-approach goals, effort and persistence.

The main problem we face is that there appears to be no strong relations between performance-approach orientations and achievement. There is certainly and emotional component at play and this could provide us with a way to reconcile these findings. It appears that while some learners are able to successfully regulate possible debilitating emotions, others are unable to do so, leading to less effort and persistence and the feeling that the task is somehow unworthy of their efforts. Mastery-goal orientated learners are less likely to develop debilitating emotions because they view learning as a challenge and something to become skilled at – they view difficulty and challenge as a vital part of the learning process rather than something that exists in order to trick them or to reveal their incompetence to the world. They also see failure as part of the route they must take in order to reach the goals they have set for themselves. In their model of achievement emotions Diana Tyson, Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia and Nancy Hill proposed that mastery learners are more likely to evoke positive emotions due to the way they view difficult tasks; they don’t need to regulate debilitating negative emotions because such emotions are much less likely to arise.

When a nudge is better than a sledgehammer.

Encouraging positive behaviours in individuals can prove problematic in any domain and it’s often easier to get it really wrong than to get it even slightly right. For me, one of the most interesting
sledgehammer studies I encountered in 2014 concerned the effectiveness of ‘fear appraisals’ as a predictor of motivation and exam scores (Putwain & Remedios, 2014). Seeing as threats are often seen as a fall back position for many teachers as the exam season approaches, with such comments as ‘If you don’t revise you’ll fail your exams’ or ‘If you fail you won’t get your place at university’, these results are relevant to daily teaching practice.

This kind of research then raises other questions, such as ‘How do I motivate my students in a more effective and productive way?’ Behavioural economics might have the answer, however its techniques have so far failed to permeate the world of education and have, instead, concentrated on health and wellbeing. Nevertheless, if we dip our toes into some of research intended to promote healthier living, it becomes possible to see glimpses of where behavioural economics could fit within an educational paradigm.

A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) exhumes the once popular concept of self-affirmation. My immediate reaction to the paper was a wry smile as I recalled my old next-door neighbour who wrote the word ‘winner’ in lipstick on his rear-view mirror. Needless to say, I’ve never been a big fan of self-affirmations and not just because they involve the wilful misuse of copious amounts of post-it notes.

Despite my initial reservations (although many remain), I eventually realised that the research itself seemed quite promising. The paper (Falk et al., 2015), entitled ‘Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change’ is interesting on several level (and not just because it has the word ‘brain’ in it).

According to the paper, self-affirmation (the affirmation of core-values) are effective if invoked prior to a message being given (and this is supported by previous research). Falk et al. wanted to investigate whether or not prior affirmation of core-values would lead to a group of sedentary participants being more receptive to health messages (i.e. would they be more likely to engage in physical activity) presented post core-value affirmation and how the brain responded to these messages.

The study supported previous research (in that reflecting on personal core-values led to the health message being more effective) but also highlighted the brain’s response to such messages in that the messages appeared to active the part of the brain associated with self-relevant information.

While information obtained through brain scans remains controversial and the sample size here was extremely small (67), it does throw up some interesting ideas of how the affirmation of core-value and other self-relevant information might help to ‘nudge’ learners in the right direction even before a message has been presented. It also raises a few questions concerning how positive emotional attributes could be ‘triggered’ prior to an important message or test situation.


Falk, E.B., O’Donnell, M.B., Cascio, C.N., Tinney, F., Kang, Y., Lieberman, M.D., Taylor, S.E., An, L., Resnicow, K. & Strecher, V.J. (2015). Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Online]. p.p. 201500247. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/lookup/doi/10.1073/pnas.1500247112.

Putwain, D. & Remedios, R. (2014). The scare tactic: Do fear appeals predict motivation and exam scores? School psychology quarterly?: the official journal of the Division of School Psychology, American Psychological Association. [Online]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24730693. [Accessed: 21 April 2014].

Justin Bieber, The Illuminati and Educational Research

Justin making the sign of the Illuminati

Justin making the sign of the Illuminati

I became embroiled in the most bizarre conversation recently. For some reason my lesson took an unexpected turn when a student suggested that Justin Bieber was a member of the shadowy Illuminati, the centuries old secret sect that reportedly rules the world and made famous by author Dan Brown (so not so secret after all). I then made the mistake of suggesting that this couldn’t possibly be true because the Illuminati themselves didn’t exist.

“They must exist,” retorted the student, “because Justin Bieber is a member, and so is Rihanna.”

The evidence base for this assertion was that one erroneous belief (the existence of the Illuminati) was supported by a second erroneous belief (that Bieber was a member of the said shadowy organisation).

Now this might simply seem like one of these daft conversations we often have with teenagers (and there are many) and yet it can be compared with other assertions made by the likes of purveyors of alternative medicine. One such ploy would be to suggest that the research community refuses to conduct trials on this therapy or that homeopathic remedy because it’s so effective that it would render all drugs redundant and destroy the profits of the pharmaceutical companies. In other words, the absence of evidence leads to the assumption that it must work.

Now, I’m not saying that education works in the same way, but I am drawn to the following quote on learning styles (specifically VAK) which appears in a 2001 edition of a book on accelerated learning by a well known educationalist:

The leading practitioners in NLP have spent many years characterising the ‘typical’ attributes of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners. The work is not research based. It is pragmatic and based on detailed elicitation and modelling.

Of course, the standout sentence here is ‘The work is not research based’ – why did nobody hear the alarm bells ringing?

In a similar way, many teachers (and once-upon-a-time teachers) use phrases like ‘it’s common sense’ or ‘I’ve always done it that way and it works’. If psychology has taught me anything it’s that so-called common sense assumptions are often wrong (for example, if a large crowd is present during an accident, help is less, not more, likely to be forthcoming). They often use these common sense assumptions to reject evidence outright, while others will cherry-pick the data that supports their common sense assumptions and reject that evidence which does not (so-called conformation bias) – of course, this is not confined to teachers.

Some things, on the other hand, we need to accept (or leave well alone) because we simply can’t test them empirically. It’s difficult for us to claim that play is or is not vital for learning because we can’t ethically conduct a study where one group of children are deprived of play. One way we can is to study the educational attainment of those children who have been brought up in isolation or extreme deprivation (including feral children). The problem here is that many of these children have experienced both physical and psychological abuse, increasing the number of confounding variables and making it nigh on impossible to isolate one specific cause. Another problem would be defining the concept of play – is daydreaming a type of internal play? If so, then how would we prevent a child from daydreaming?

Accepting that some things cannot be tested is one thing; accepting them as fact because they can’t be tested is something else altogether. Then again, accepting that education should be evidence based is perhaps the wrong road to take and accepting that it should be evidence informed is perhaps a better one.

UPDATE: I have recently been made aware that Justin Bieber has, in fact, been assassinated by the Illuminati and replaced with a robot.