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Emotions and education

The love of learning

München, 11/19/2015

How can we sustain a lifelong enthusiasm for learning? LMU psychologist Reinhard Pekrun talks about the link between emotions and educational success.

Photo: Jan Greune / LMU

Most first-graders enjoy going to school. Why is it so difficult to keep this passion for learning alive?
Reinhard Pekrun: Most children are indeed thrilled to start school. This early optimism is partly due to the fact that up to 90% of beginners think they are the best in their class. But then two developments set in. First of all, children’s self-assessment becomes more realistic because, in the social context of the classroom, they are forced to accept that others may be even more talented than they are. Second, during their time in elementary school, many children receive unfavorable feedback in the form of poor grades, which sends the message that their work is inadequate and their ability is insufficient. As our studies have shown, this kind of experience often causes them to lose their initial enthusiasm for learning, while their anxiety – in particular, exam-related anxiety – grows. At the same time, many children become bored. It is quite natural that one’s initial level of enthusiasm should decline somewhat over time, but this process is exacerbated by the way in which our system of education is organized and how examinations are designed.

What exactly is wrong with how exams are structured?
An exam provides information about students’ level of knowledge, which teachers need in order to adapt their instruction to students’ level of competence. It is also important for students themselves to know how well they are doing and where their weaknesses lie. However, the crucial question is how one measures success at learning. We can ask to what extent the student has reached a defined level of competence (criterion-based assessment), or how much the student has improved since the last test and whether her progress is compatible with her cognitive abilities (person-based evaluation). But there are other ways of defining success. One can use comparative measures based on the overall standard of the class. Here, the question is not whether a student has reached a given level of competence, but where he or she stands relative to the rest of the class (grading on the curve). In Germany, performance is often evaluated in such a way that the result essentially fits this model: The reference used to evaluate each individual child is the average level of attainment in the class. As everyone in Germany knows, grades 1 and 2 go to the good students in the class, while the worst in the group get a 5 or 6. This type of approach inevitably produces winners and losers. In addition, studies have clearly shown that classes vary widely in their overall level of achievement. Grade 1 in a given class may well correspond to Grade 3 in another, and vice versa. Where the class serves as the standard, grades cannot be meaningfully compared between classes, schools, or regions.

What are the emotional consequences of this approach?
For the winners – those who get good grades – the emotional consequences are usually positive; winners have good reason to be proud. But the price of such a mechanism is high, because those with a 5 or a 6 go home as losers. And if they repeatedly get poor grades, these students gradually lose faith in their abilities. This sense of failure can then lead to test anxiety, feelings of shame and guilt, and ultimately to hopelessness and resignation. The intensity of these negative emotions is affected by the perceived consequences of failure. In our selective system, grades are the decisive factor that determines what type of secondary school students can attend after completing elementary school, and what academic and professional options are open to them later on.

And what happens when the winners go on to a Gymnasium?
In the Gymnasium (high-ability track school) the “big-fish-little-pond” effect sets in. As soon as I find myself in a more able group, I can no longer assume that I am among the best in my class, that I am still a ‘big fish’. Instead, I may find that I am less gifted than many of my peers. This realization can erode my self-confidence, lessen my enthusiasm for learning and, as a result, enhance my fear of failure. Conversely, transfer to a weaker class can boost students’ self-confidence and reawaken interest in learning. The reason is obvious: A higher group average implies that, relatively speaking, any given member has less chance of being successful. In fact, a significant number of students who go on to a Gymnasium experience a loss of self-confidence. Accustomed to being among the best, they are suddenly confronted with more talented classmates, and their grades suffer. Many such students develop test anxiety, while students who attend a Hauptschule (lower-ability track school) often benefit emotionally from the change. After the transition, with regard to emotions at school, the overall differences between students attending these different tracks are typically small, in contrast to the situation in elementary school. Indeed, we often find that, on average, students at Hauptschulen are emotionally in even better shape than those who go to Gymnasien. Similar processes are presumably at work following the transition to university.

So grading on the curve should be abandoned?
Internationally, the trend is clear: Most countries have moved away from comparative evaluations based on the class standard towards methods that measure the attainment of learning goals. For example, this is true of the Scandinavian countries and of English-speaking countries such as Canada. In my view, the German educational system is behind the times in this respect.

In other words, children in our schools are being discouraged by the system?
Not all of them. Those who regularly receive good grades are likely to retain their enthusiasm. However, many students do lose interest in learning over the course of their education. There are considerable differences in individual developmental trajectories, though. One reason for this variation is that an initial interest for a wide range of school subjects becomes more differentiated with time. A student may retain a lively interest in literature and language, for instance, but pay less attention to maths and science subjects over time, or vice versa. This refinement of interest is a natural process in the development of personal identity during adolescence. We shouldn’t be too pessimistic – our studies with K-12 and university students show that positive and negative achievement emotions are reported about equally often.

How important is it to enjoy learning?
Many people assume that positive mood facilitates learning and negative mood reduces performance. It’s not that simple, however. There are pleasant emotions that can promote learning – enthusiasm for a task, pride, hope for success – and there are other positive feelings that are more ambivalent in their effects, as when you are relieved, relaxed or simply in a good mood. Research has shown that being in a good mood can actually engender an unrealistic sense of optimism and reduce people’s willingness to exert themselves. Conversely, negative emotions need not necessarily have a deleterious influence on performance. Activating negative emotions such as anxiety, shame or anger usually do have negative effects; however, depending on the individual case, they can increase motivation and willingness to make an effort. For example, fear of failure can force you to prepare thoroughly for an upcoming test. Deactivating emotions, such as boredom or hopelessness, on the other hand, almost always have an adverse impact on learning and performance.

And how do these feelings affect learning?
Emotions have an impact on our working memory, thus influencing attention, and they shape our motivation. They also affect the cognitive processes involved in the transfer of information into long-term memory, and they help to determine how we regulate the process of learning – for instance, whether we set our own goals and decide ourselves how to go about achieving them or leave these decisions to our teachers or parents. Positive activating emotions such as enthusiasm and enjoyment of learning are clearly helpful. If you enjoy learning, you are more motivated, you are able to concentrate better, and you can approach tasks more creatively. Enjoyment makes it easier to understanding complex information, connect it to what you already know and, thus, store it effectively in long-term memory. Anxiety and anger, in contrast, reduce your attention and interest in the subject matter. If you are afraid that you might not pass an important exam, you will find it harder to concentrate. Anxiety can also cause you to avoid engaging with the subject matter or persuade you not to turn up for the test. But, as I mentioned earlier, anxiety can also motivate someone to do their very best to pass the test. Anxiety can even facilitate certain kinds of learning that require a focus on details, such as learning vocabulary. On the whole, though, anxiety is more likely to promote avoidance and thus diminish performance; extreme test anxiety can have toxic effects, such as absenteeism and drop-out from school.

Can exams be designed in such a way that they do not cause undue anxiety?
The design of exams is not just a matter of using an appropriate standard of evaluation – exams should also be as transparent as possible. Uncertainty about timing, demands, subject matter, type of task, and mode of evaluation increases anxiety. Not knowing what is expected saps one’s self-confidence. From a psychological point of view, unannounced tests, which are frequently used in our schools, are certainly not very helpful. In addition, the importance of any single test should not be too high. As such, it can be helpful to give students the chance to repeat a test, although there are obviously organizational limits to repeated tests. As a student, I can actively reduce uncertainty by seeking information about the subject matter and demands of an upcoming exam. I should do this even when I am so anxious I would prefer to avoid all thought of the impending exam; avoidance can reduce anxiety in the short term but is detrimental in the long term. Parents and teachers should make every effort to let children develop self-confidence and an interest in learning. Overemphasis on the importance of achievement and the consequences of failure, on the other hand, should be avoided. Although parental or teacher pressure can increase motivation, it is also likely to exacerbate children’s anxiety.

And what else can be done to maintain enjoyment of learning?
When teachers and professors themselves are enthusiastic, they can transmit their enjoyment to their students: Emotions are contagious. Indeed, this is true of all emotions that a teacher displays in the classroom; it holds for positive emotions like pride in students’ achievements or hope that the social climate in the class will improve, and also for negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety or boredom. The quality of instruction is important as well: Is the subject matter well structured, does it include clear and understandable examples? Does the degree of difficulty match the students’ level of competence? Our research has shown that the use of a calculated degree of incongruence and the inclusion of information that challenges students’ expectations can also be helpful. Conflicting information can cause confusion, but confusion can spark reflection to resolve the incongruence. Furthermore, it is a good idea to organize classroom instruction to meet students’ needs for autonomy, for example, by allowing them to define requirements and tasks for themselves.

What can individual students do to ensure that they don’t lose their enthusiasm for learning?
University students in particular, but schoolchildren too, are well advised to carefully plan their learning program, rather than tackling tasks in an improvised fashion. It makes sense to organize the material to be learned to ensure one doesn’t lose track of what needs to be done. It is also a good idea to select material that is moderately challenging. You can strengthen your motivation by choosing material related to your personal interests and preferences, and by reminding yourself of the personal importance of studying. Research has shown, for example, that students can enhance their motivation and enjoyment by writing essays on the significance of course contents for their future and personal identity. In doing so, it’s best to focus on your intrinsic motivation, your engagement with the subject matter, and your personal progress, rather than on the competitive aspects of achievement. Comparison of one’s own performance with that of peers distracts attention and can stimulate fear of failure. Furthermore, learning is usually more fun when it’s associated with social interaction. However, if you wish to learn in a group, take care to organize opportunities to do so well in advance and not in the last few days before the test. It is also important not to set goals that are unrealistically high. Expectations that cannot be fulfilled can induce fear of failure and spoil your enjoyment of learning. It is better to aim for results that actually are within your reach.

What if anxiety retains the upper hand?
As a rule, achievement emotions are not stable personality traits. They show differentiation over time and can be changed. Successful methods for treating test anxiety are available today, which are among the most effective types of psychological psychotherapy. Some of these methods are based on very simple principles. For example, one of these principles consists in making clear to the client that failure is not always caused by lack of ability, but may be due to insufficient preparation or suboptimal learning strategies. Such misconceptions and unfavorable ability attributions can be remedied by enhancing learning-related competences and self-confidence, for example, through methods of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Prof. Dr. Reinhard PekrunProfessor Reinhard Pekrun holds the Chair of Personality and Educational Psychology at LMU. His research areas include achievement emotion and motivation, personality development, and educational assessment and evaluation.

See also: Reinhard Pekrun: Emotions and Learning. Educational Practices Series, Volume 24. 30 pp, 2014. The booklet is published by the International Bureau of Education, which is part of UNESCO, and can be downloaded free