Education.com
Try
Brainzy
Try
Plus

Student Emotions

By
Updated on Dec 23, 2009

The classroom is an emotional place. The fact that learning and achievement are critical for students' educational careers implies that academic activities and attainments often arouse intense emotions. Relevant achievement emotions include positive emotions such as enjoyment of learning, hope, and pride, as well as negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, shame, or boredom in class. Due to the interactive nature of classroom settings, social emotions such as admiration, contempt, or envy can also play a major role in these settings. Furthermore, emotions are functionally important by influencing students' academic motivation, behavior, performance, health, and personality development. Nevertheless, as of 2008, there still was a lack of empirical research on student emotions. Research has thoroughly examined students' test anxiety since the 1950s (Zeidner, 1998, 2007) and has produced cumulative knowledge that can inform educational practice. There is little research on student emotions other than anxiety, however, implying that it is difficult to draw firm conclusions for most emotions experienced by students (Schutz & Pekrun, 2007).

DEFINITION AND ASSESSMENT OF EMOTION

Emotions are reactions to significant events and objects. Serving the preparation and adaptive organization of subsequent perception, cognition, and action, emotions are defined as involving multiple coordinated processes (Lewis & Haviland-Jones, 2000). Important components include the following. (1) Affective components comprise emotional feelings that are physiologically bound to the activation of subcortical systems such as the amygdala (e.g., uneasy, nervous feelings in anxiety experienced before an exam). (2) Cognitive components involve emotion-specific thoughts (such as worries about the threat of failing an exam). (3) Physiological components serve the preparation of action (e.g., peripheral physiological activation in anxiety, as indicated by symptoms such as increased heart rate, respiration rate, and sweating). (4) Motivational components comprise behavioral impulses and wishes (e.g., avoidance motivation in anxiety). (5) Expressive components include facial, postural, and vocal expression of emotion.

Due to the multi-component nature of emotion, there are various ways to assess student emotions. Self-report instruments assess self-perceptions of emotion. In test anxiety research, questionnaires such as the Test Anxiety Inventory (TAI; Spielberger, 1980) play an important role. An instrument measuring various achievement emotions experienced by students is the Achievement Emotions Questionnaire (AEQ; Pekrun, Goetz, Titz, & Perry, 2002). Recordings of physiological processes such as heart rate, respiration rate, or changes of skin conductance are used to infer emotions from their peripheral physiological components. Brain imaging techniques such as EEG and fMRI serve to identify central physiological processes underlying emotions. Finally, emotions can be assessed by observation of facial and postural expression. However, emotion observation is not an easy task with students beyond the early elementary years who control emotion expression by adhering to socially defined display rules.

CATEGORIES AND DIMENSIONS OF STUDENT EMOTIONS

Two distinct ways of describing emotions are provided by categorical and dimensional approaches. In categorical approaches, qualitatively different types of discrete emotions are differentiated, such as enjoyment, anger, anxiety, or boredom. This approach allows taking into account the unique patterns of components and functions that are typical for different emotions. Within the dimensional approach, a small number of dimensions are held to be sufficient to describe human emotion. Two important dimensions are valence (positive versus negative, or pleasant versus unpleasant) and activation (activating versus deactivating). Categorical and dimensional approaches can be integrated in hierarchical models that regard discrete emotions as lower-level factors, and affective dimensions as higher-order factors describing common properties of discrete emotions (Feldman, Barrett, & Russell, 1998).

The two dimensions valence and activation can also be used to classify students' achievement emotions (Pek-run, 2006; see Table 1). Achievement emotions are defined as emotions that relate to achievement activities (such as academic learning) and their outcomes (such as academic success and failure). The two dimensions render four broad categories of achievement emotions: (1) activating positive emotions (e.g., joy, hope, pride); (2) deactivating positive emotions (e.g., relief, relaxation); (3) activating negative emotions (e.g., anger, anxiety, shame); and (4) deactivating negative emotions (e.g., hopelessness, boredom).

In addition, achievement emotions differ according to their object focus, relating either to achievement activities such as learning, or to the success and failure outcomes of these activities. Furthermore, some achievement emotions render an affective self-evaluation by linking positively versus negatively valenced activities and outcomes to the self (e.g., pride after success and shame after failure). Self-evaluative emotions are critical for students' development of self-worth (Covington & Berry, 1976).

Table 1Table 1ILLUSTRATION BY GGS INFORMATION SERVICES. CENGAGE LEARNING, GALE.

IMPORTANCE OF STUDENT EMOTIONS FOR ACADEMIC LEARNING AND PERFORMANCE

Two lines of evidence suggest that students' emotions profoundly affect their learning and performance. The first line of evidence originates in experimental mood research, the second in situated field studies directly analyzing students' emotions. Experimental mood research has shown that mood and emotions facilitate mood-congruent memory processes, such that positive self-related information is more easily stored and retrieved when in a positive mood and negative information when in a negative mood (e.g., Olafson & Ferraro, 2001). By implication, a positive mood can enhance students' motivation to approach learning tasks, whereas a negative mood can trigger mood-congruent avoidance motivation. Furthermore, the findings indicate that positive versus negative mood can promote different styles of information processing. Whereas creative, flexible, and holistic ways of thinking are facilitated by a positive mood, more analytical, rigid, and detailed ways of processing of information can be enhanced by a negative mood (Lewis & Haviland-Jones, 2000).

The ecological validity of these experimental findings, however, may be limited due to differences between the laboratory and real-life classroom situations, including ethical constraints preventing an induction of more intense emotions in the laboratory. Therefore, field studies have directly addressed the effects of students' emotions as experienced in classroom situations. Most of these studies focused on students' test anxiety (summaries in Zeidner, 1998, 2007). Research on test anxiety has shown that anxiety impairs performance on complex or difficult tasks that demand cognitive resources (e.g., difficult mathematical tasks). Performance on easy and less complex tasks is not impaired or enhanced. Interference and attentional deficit models have been proposed to explain negative performance effects of anxiety. These models assume that anxiety involves task-irrelevant thinking which reduces task-related attention thus interfers with performance on tasks requiring attentional resources: Students who worry about possible failure cannot focus their attention on learning.

In line with findings on task-related effects, test anxiety correlates negatively with students' academic achievement, typically explaining about 10% of the variance in achievement scores (Hembree, 1988). However, these correlations should be interpreted cautiously. First, they may be due to effects of failure on the development of students' anxiety, rather than effects of anxiety on achievement. Second, correlations were not uniformly negative across studies and individuals. Zero and positive relationships were found as well. One reason may be the ambiguous motivational effects which anxiety can exert: Anxiety reduces students' interest and intrinsic motivation, but it can also motivate students to invest extra effort to avoid failure. In individual cases, these motivating effects can be so strong that negative effects on attention and intrinsic motivation are compensated. From an educator's perspective, however, any positive effect of anxiety in an individual student is certainly outweighed by the negative effect on subject-matter interest and academic performance in the majority of students.

The available evidence for effects of student emotions other than anxiety is limited. For positive emotions such as enjoyment of learning, positive correlations with academic achievement have been reported (Pekrun et al., 2002). For anger and shame, findings suggest that overall relationships with students' achievement are negative. As with anxiety, however, the effects need not uniformly be negative. For example, in students who believe in their capabilities, shame about failure on an exam can fuel motivation to invest more effort in the future (Turner & Schallert, 2001). In contrast, findings on boredom and hopelessness suggest that these two emotions are just detrimental by exerting negative effects on cognitive resources, motivation, information processing, and any kind of academic performance (Pekrun et al., 2002).

In sum, the available evidence implies that it would be inappropriate to assume that positive emotions always exert positive effects and negative emotions always negative effects. Rather, the effects depend on the mediating processes and specific task demands under consideration. More specifically, positive activating emotions such as enjoyment of learning likely are beneficial for students' learning and performance under most task conditions. Conversely, negative deactivating emotions such as hopelessness and boredom can be assumed to be devastative to any kind of academic performance. The effects of positive deactivating emotions such as relief and relaxation, however, probably are more ambiguous. Similarly, negative activating emotions such as anxiety, shame, and anger can exert ambiguous effects by reducing attention and interest, but also by being able to strengthen extrinsic motivation as well as more rigid modes of information processing such as simple rehearsal of learning material. Therefore, negative activating emotions can enhance performance in specific cases, although their average affects across students are negative.

INDIVIDUAL ANTECEDENTS AND DEVELOPMENT OF STUDENT EMOTIONS

Students' achievement-related appraisals are important proximal determinants of their emotions. The impact of factors such as achievement goals and gender likely is mediated by students' appraisals. Also, the development of students' emotions largely depends on the development of their achievement-related thinking.

The impact of appraisals on anticipatory anxiety has been addressed by R. S. Lazarus's transactional stress model, and their impact on emotions following success and failure by B. Weiner's atttributional theory. The transactional stress model (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) assumes that individuals first evaluate the threat implied by a stressful situation such as an exam (“primary appraisal”) and then judge the possibilities of coping with the situation (“secondary appraisal”). In case of threat and insufficient perceived control over the situation, anxiety is assumed to be instigated. Weiner's 1985 attributional theory proposes that achievement outcomes immediately produce “attribution-independent” emotions such as happiness after success and frustration after failure. These emotions do not need any more cognitive elaboration. In contrast, attribution-dependent emotions are shaped by the causal attribution of the outcome. Pride is assumed to depend on an attribution of success to internal factors (such as ability). Shame and guilt are induced by failure that is attributed to internal factors that are subjectively controllable (such as lack of effort). Gratitude is expected to be aroused by an attribution of success to external factors that are under control by others (e.g., help), and anger by attributions of failure to such factors. In line with Lazarus's and Weiner's theories, empirical research has corroborated that indicators of subjective lack of controllability, such as low self-concepts of ability and failure expectancies, are related to students' anxiety and their attributions of success and failure to emotions such as pride, shame, guilt, and anger (Heckhausen, 1991; Zeidner, 1998, 2007).

Different appraisal theories of achievement emotions, such as Lazarus's and Weiner's theories, are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. The control-value theory of achievement emotions (Pekrun, 2006) aims at integrating the assumptions of different theories. In addition, whereas previous theories have focused on outcome-related emotions such as anxiety, pride, and shame, the control-value theory also addresses activity-related emotions such as enjoyment and boredom experienced during learning. The theory assumes that students experience emotions when they feel in control of, or out of control of, activities and outcomes that are subjectively important to them, which suggests that control appraisals and value appraisals are the proximal determinants of their emotions. Occurrence and intensity of achievement emotions are seen as a joint product of these two kinds of appraisals. For example, anxiety is seen to be induced when the outcome of an exam is perceived as not being sufficiently controllable, but subjectively important. Conversely, if a student feels in control and does not expect failure or does not care about the exam, there is no need to be anxious. Similarly, enjoyment of learning is seen to be instigated if a student feels competent to master the material and values the material. If the student feels incompetent or is disinterested, negative activity emotions such as boredom are induced rather than enjoyment.

Achievement goals likely influence students' emotions by shaping emotion-inducing appraisals. Mastery goals can focus attention on the controllability and positive value of achievement activities. Performance-approach goals can facilitate positive appraisals of success, while performance-avoidance goals can sustain appraisals of the uncontrollability and negative value of failure. In line with these assumptions, empirical evidence shows that students' mastery goals relate positively to their enjoyment of learning and performance-avoidance goals to their anxiety (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002; Pekrun, Elliot, & Maier, 2006).

Similarly, the impact of factors such as gender, race, and culture is likely mediated by their influence on students' appraisals of achievement. Specifically, while there is too little research on the impact on race and culture to draw firm conclusions, there is consistent evidence showing gender differences in achievement emotions. Anxiety research has shown that mean scores for achievement-related anxiety are higher for female than for male students. This is especially true for students' anxiety in mathematics. Gender differences in mathematics anxiety, however, are at least partially due to lower self-concepts of ability for female students in this domain (Frenzel, Pekrun, & Goetz, in press), suggesting that these gender differences are mediated by students' appraisals.

Finally, congruency between appraisals and emotions has also been found for the development of achievement emotions across students' educational career. Developmental research has shown that the occurrence of cognitively mediated emotions (such as pride and shame) in the preschool years is linked to the level of cognitive development (Heckhausen, 1991). Beyond the preschool years, all major achievement emotions are experienced by students. Subsequent development over the school years likely depends on the development of individual appraisals of capabilities and the subjective value of academic achievement. For test anxiety, research has shown that average levels of anxiety are low at the beginning of elementary school, increase substantially over the elementary school years, and remain at high levels throughout the middle school, high school, and university years (Hembree, 1988). This finding is congruent to the high levels of students' self-concepts of ability that are prevalent at the beginning of schooling and are adjusted downward during elementary school.

REGULATION AND THERAPY OF EMOTIONS

Emotion regulation involves up-regulating adaptive emotions such as enjoyment of learning and down-regulating maladaptive emotions such as anxiety. Cognitive competencies for doing so have been labeled emotional intelligence (Matthews, Zeidner, & Roberts, 2002). Concerning student emotions, research has focused on students' regulation of test anxiety (i.e., coping). Three broad categories of coping strategies have been identified (Zeidner, 1998, 2007). Emotion-oriented coping aims to reduce anxiety without changing the situation (e.g., by using relaxation techniques, taking drugs, or changing appraisals). Problem-oriented coping reduces anxiety by attempting to solve the problem (e.g., by investing effort in preparing an exam). Avoidance-oriented coping implies escaping the situation behaviorally or mentally (as implied by procrastination, absenteeism, and dropping out of school). In an academic achievement context, problem-oriented coping often is most adaptive. However, emotion-oriented coping can be adaptive as well (e.g., in situations providing no opportunities for successfully solving the problem).

Similarly, therapy of maladaptive student emotions can aim at directly changing the emotion or at changing underlying causal factors. Therapy of test anxiety has been researched most often and is among the most successful kinds of psychotherapy as of the late 1990s (Zeid-ner, 1998). Emotion-oriented treatment includes anxiety induction (e.g., flooding), biofeedback procedures, relaxation techniques, and systematic desensibilization. Cognitive therapies modify anxiety-inducing control appraisals, value beliefs, and styles of self-related thinking. Examples are cognitive-attentional training and cognitive restructuring therapy. Study-skills training teaches students to use task-oriented strategies of learning enabling them to be academically successful, thus alleviating their anxiety. Finally, multimodal therapies integrate several of these procedures.

Cognitive and multimodal therapy proved to be especially effective, both for reducing test anxiety and for improving academic performance. For students with deficits of learning strategies, study-skills training also turned out to be successful. Therapy focusing exclusively on emotion-oriented procedures is successful in terms of reducing anxiety but less effective as to students' academic improvement (Zeidner, 1998).

THE ROLE OF THE CLASSROOM CONTEXT AND IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATORS

Research in the late 1990s and early 2000s has focused on individual functions, antecedents, and therapy of student emotions. The role of classroom instruction remains largely unexplored. Again, research on test anxiety is an exception. Judging from test anxiety studies (Zeidner, 1998, 2007) and assumptions of appraisal theories (Pekrun, 2006), the following factors that are under the control of educators likely are important for the development of students' emotions.

  1. Cognitive quality of instruction. Factors reducing students' perceived control, such as lack of structure, lack of clarity, and excessive task demands, are known to enhance students' test anxiety. With exams as well, lack of structure and transparency has been shown to contribute to students' anxiety (e.g., lack of information on demands, materials, and grading practices; Zeidner, 1998). Conversely, well-structured instruction and clear explanations likely contribute to adaptive student emotions by raising students' competencies and feelings of control. By implication, adaptive student emotions likely can be fostered, and maladaptive emotions reduced, by raising the cognitive quality of instruction.
  2. Motivational quality of instruction. Teachers deliver direct messages conveying academic values, as well as more indirect messages implied by their behavior. Two ways of inducing values and related emotions may be most important. First, if learning environments meet the needs of students, positive activity-related emotions likely are fostered. For example, learning environments that support cooperative learning should help students to fulfill needs for social relatedness, thus making learning enjoyable. Second, teachers' own enthusiasm can facilitate students' adoption of positive emotions by way of observational learning and emotional contagion (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994).
  3. Support of autonomy and self-regulated learning. Learning environments supporting students' self-regulated learning can be assumed to increase their sense of control and related positive emotions. In addition, such environments can foster positive emotions by meeting students' need for autonomy. However, these beneficial effects probably depend on the match between students' competence and individual need for academic autonomy, on the one hand, and the affordances of these environments, on the other. In case of a mismatch, loss of control and negative emotions can result. By implication, teachers should attend to matching demands for autonomy to students' competencies and needs.
  4. Goal structures and achievement expectations. Academic achievement can be defined by standards of individual mastery, by normative standards based on competitive social comparison, or by standards pertaining to cooperative group performance instead of individual performance. These different standards imply individualistic (mastery), competitive (normative performance), and cooperative goal structures in the classroom (Johnson & Johnson, 1974). Goal structures and grading practices determine students' opportunities for experiencing success and perceiving control, thus influencing their emotions. Specifically, competitive goal structures imply, by definition, that some students experience success, whereas others have to experience failure, thus increasing levels of anxiety and hopelessness. Similarly, the demands implied by excessively high achievement expectancies of teachers and parents can lead to lowered control perceptions and related negative emotions. The available evidence corroborates that competitive classroom climates and excessive achievement expectancies correlate positively with students' test anxiety. Accordingly, as seen from an emotion perspective, educators should adapt expectancies to students' competencies and should refrain from using goal structures which induce individual competition between students.
  5. Feedback and consequences of achievement. Research suggests that cumulative failure feedback is a major factor underlying students' test anxiety (Zeidner, 1998). Success experiences likely strengthen perceived control and related positive emotions, whereas repeated failure can undermine subjective control and, therefore, instigate negative emotions. In addition, the perceived consequences of success and failure are important. Positive future-related student emotions can be increased if academic success is seen to produce beneficial long-term outcomes (such as future occupational chances). Negative outcomes of academic failure, by contrast, can increase students' achievement-related anxiety and hopelessness. By implication, providing success experiences, defining mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than as personal failure, and linking attainment to beneficial outcomes also is important for helping students to develop adaptive emotions.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Covington, M. V., & Beery, R. G. (1976). Self-worth and school learning. Oxford, England: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Feldman Barrett, L., & Russell, J. A. (1998). Independence and bipolarity in the structure of current affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 967–984.

Frenzel, A. C., Pekrun, R., & Goetz, T. (in press). Girls and mathematics—a “hopeless” issue? A control-value approach to gender differences in emotions towards mathematics. European Journal of Psychology of Education.

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. (1994). Emotional contagion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Heckhausen, H. (1991). Motivation and action. New York: Springer.

Hembree, R. (1988). Correlates, causes, effects, and treatment of test anxiety. Review of Educational Research, 58, 47–77.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1974). Instructional goal structure: Cooperative, competitive or individualistic. Review of Educational Research, 4, 213–240.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.

Lewis, M., & Haviland-Jones, J. M. (Eds.). (2000). Handbook of emotions. New York: Guilford Press.

Linnenbrink, E. A., & Pintrich, P. R. (2002). Achievement goal theory and affect: An asymmetrical bidirectional model. Educational Psychologist, 37, 69–78.

Matthews, G., Zeidner, M., and Roberts, R. D. (2002). Emotional intelligence: Science and myth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Olafson, K. M., & Ferraro, F. R. (2001). Effects of emotional state on lexical decision performance. Brain and Cognition, 45, 15–20.

Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational Psychology Review, 18, 315–341.

Pekrun, R., Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2006). Achievement goals and discrete achievement emotions: A theoretical model and prospective test. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 583–597.

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Titz, W., & Perry, R. P. (2002). Academic emotions in students' self-regulated learning and achievement: A program of quantitative and qualitative research. Educational Psychologist, 37, 91–106.

Schutz, P. A., & Pekrun, R. (Eds.). (2007). Emotion in education. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Spielberger, C. D. (1980). Test Anxiety Inventory: Preliminary Professional Manual. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologist Press.

Turner, J. E., & Schallert, D. L. (2001). Expectancy-value relationships of shame reactions and shame resiliency. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 320–329.

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92, 548–573.

Zeidner, M. (1998). Test anxiety: The state of the art. New York: Plenum.

Zeidner, M. (2007). Test anxiety in educational contexts: What I have learned so far. In P. A. Schutz & R. Pekrun (Eds.), Emotion in education (pp. 165–184). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Add your own comment