Tag Archives: learned helplessness

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.


How to create a helpless student

Roo Stenning (@therealmrroo) recently directed me to a 2014 blog post from John Tomsett (@johntomsett), relating to the psychological phenomenon known as ‘learned helplessness’. Interestingly, I’d been thinking about this particular concept for a while and had even swapped a couple of tweets concerning its nature with John’s partner in crime Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish).LH1

John suggested that teachers might be responsible for instilling feelings of helplessness in students by inundating them revision sessions, catch-up lessons and other interventions. My own interpretation is similar (although primarily related to day-to-day resilience) in that we often create an environment of over-dependence where our students become unable to consider ways in which they can contribute to their own learning in the absence of outside assistance.

So what is learned helplessness?

The term ‘learned helplessness’ was coined by American psychologist Martin Seligman in the late 1960’s. Seligman discovered that dogs that had been subjected to inescapable pain (administered through electric shocks) would later accept their fate even when given a means of escape. Seligman’s work, although ethically questionable, went on to inform much of our current understanding of the nature of depression – when bad things keep happening to us, we eventually give up searching for the good and, instead, accept our ‘fate’.

Are our students helpless?

It might seem like a bit of leap from depression to the classroom, but such behaviourist assumptions can be applied to student motivation. Take, for example, the student who consistently performs badly on tests – bad results become the norm and no end of interventions will alter these negative attributions – they were a failure yesterday, they are a failure today and they will still be failure tomorrow. In such circumstances, the student learns that nothing they do can change the situation; there is little point in engaging in interventions and little point in revising for exams. There are, of course, many complex variables at play here and we can’t reject the influence of other factors such as poverty, gender and an individuals propensity towards self-handicapping.

Tied up within the learned helplessness construct is the issue of dependency. As teachers we have a tendency to claim that we are in the business of creating ‘independent learners’ yet in reality we appear to practice the opposite. Take, for example, my recent conversation with a year 13 student attending a revision session for AS re-sits.

Student: “Sir, can you do us a list of all the studies that we need to know for the exam?”

Me: “Couldn’t you do that yourself as part of your revision?”

Student: “Oh yes, never thought of that”.

By the time our students begin their A-levels they have become dependent on us as teachers – they no longer know how to be independent learners and no end of badgering will make a difference – dependency is something they have learned and learned well. Take away the interventions, the revision classes and, dare I say, the ‘spoon feeding’ and they become lost in an unknown wilderness with no map to guide them home.

So what can be done?

This is a very difficult question. In the mad scramble to ensure exam success, there is a tendency to increase dependency. I currently run several ‘interventions’ each week, the contents of which involve coaching students on how to answer exam questions. Those who fail to attend are the most likely to harbour feelings of helplessness (‘what’s the point of attending if I’m just going to fail anyway’) and there is always the faint whiff of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Behavioural psychology and the principles underlying behavioural economics might have a role to play here (as might some of the principles from positive psychology – Seligman’s more recent endeavour). There is also certainly a role for established models of motivation and self-regulation (think Self-Determination Theory).

What is evident is that there can be no quick fix. Dependency and learned helplessness form over time and alter an individual’s cognitive set. The trick is to ensure that the school environment promotes independence and self-regulation rather than stifling it. How we do this is the big question. The question really needs to be asked and the answer thoroughly investigated.