Tag Archives: failure

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.


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’.


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.


Fear, Failure and Memory.

Sometimes I think we neglect the impact anxiety and fear has on our students. With the sudden interest everyone seems to have in cognitive psychology (usually referred to as ‘cognitive science’ by the political elite*) there is, quite rightly, a growing fascination with how we can help learners to recall all the information we’ve been filling their heads with.

…but what use are these strategies if our students are so terrified of failing that they can barely recall their names (let alone the components of the working memory model – I know, ironic isn’t it)?

Alright, I’m being melodramatic.

…or am I?

Consider the following quote from the book ‘everyone is talking about’):

A fear of failure can poison learning by creating aversions to the kinds of experimentation and risk taking that characterize striving, or by diminishing performance under pressure, as in a test setting. In the latter instance, students who have a high fear of making errors when taking tests may actually do worse on the test because of their anxiety.

Make it Stick (Brown, Rodieger & McDaniel, 2013)

It seems that fear of failure is having a detrimental impact on working memory capacity because the student is directing resources away from memory and into the monitoring process – so the student is so busy thinking about performance and the monitoring of possible mistakes that there is little working memory capacity left to take care of the job in hand.

It also seems to be worse for girls…

One study investigating anxiety and performance in mathematics found that anxiety and worry in females was much more likely to negatively impact on working memory. More specifically, the researchers identified a causal chain from the worry component of anxiety to visuospatial working memory to maths performance, with worry placing more strain on visuospatial working memory in females (Ganley & Vasilyeva, 2014)

Those students who are less test anxious also appear to be more resilient and perform better on tests than those with increased levels of test anxiety (Putwain, Nicholson, Connors, & Woods, 2013).

Fear of failure is also more likely to lead to cognitive strategies such as self handicapping which in turn further perpetuate failure (Bartels & Herman, 2011)

Implications of this kind of research into emotion and learning are quite clear – rather than ignoring or eliminating the fear experienced by students, educationalists should encourage more positive ways of dealing with the fear of failure. Students need to fail (I’ve been banging on about that for a while now) but the ‘idea’ of failure needs a serious re-framing. While we might not yet be ready for a French-style ‘Festival of Errors’ or a Californian ‘FailCon’ (after all, let’s face it, no Brit wants to admit they’ve cocked up!), there is certainly a need for some cognitive readjustment.

* Michael Gove likes to use the term ‘cognitive science’ – I suspect it’s his way of hiding the fact that he thinks psychology is neither a science nor a proper subject.


Bartels, J., & Herman, W. (2011). Fear of Failure, Self-Handicapping, and Negative Emotions in Response to Failure. Online Submission. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED524320
Brown, P, Rodieger, H., & McDaniel, M. (2013). Make it stick. Belknap.
Ganley, C. M., & Vasilyeva, M. (2014). The role of anxiety and working memory in gender differences in mathematics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(1), 105–120. doi:10.1037/a0034099
Putwain, D. W., Nicholson, L. J., Connors, L., & Woods, K. (2013). Resilient children are less test anxious and perform better in tests at the end of primary schooling. Learning and Individual Differences, 28, 41–46. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2013.09.010