Emotions in classrooms: The need to understand how emotions affect learning and education

Kelly Trezise, University of Melbourne. Amanda Bourgeois, The University of Queensland. Camilla Luck, Curtin University
Published in Neuroscience
Emotions in classrooms: The need to understand how emotions affect learning and education

Classrooms are emotional settings. Students’ emotional experiences can impact on their ability to learn, their engagement in school, and their career choices. Yet too often education research ignores or neutralizes emotions. To improve students’ learning and emotional states, reduce teacher burden, and further develop of emotion and learning theories, research efforts should turn to explore how students can learn regardless of their emotional state. 

We know that some emotions provide a barrier to students’ classroom engagement and test performance. For example, academic anxieties, such as mathematics anxiety, have wide-ranging effects, affecting strategy use, test performance, and subject choice.  However, anxiety does not affect every student in the same way. Some students are able to minimize the negative impact of anxiety on their math problem solving, whereas others show declines in their cognitive capacity (Trezise & Reeve, 2014; 2016).  Neuroscience research suggests math deficits resulting from anxiety are eliminated in individuals who show activation of brain areas related to cognitive control and motivation (Lyons & Beilock, 2012). Investigating how some students are able to learn despite experiencing negative emotion may help to more understand both learning and emotions.

How can we break down the classroom–emotion barrier? One option is to target the emotion, for example, through interventions aimed at targeting the anxiety aspect of the anxiety–math relationship. Such approaches may be limited in both their impact and scope. Luck and Lipp (2015) show treatments for anxiety reduces the physiological signs of anxiety, but negative attitudes persist.  These negative attitudes increase the risk of relapse.  This suggests that if education-related anxieties, such as math anxiety, are treated, the negative educational consequences of the anxiety are likely to remain. For example, with negative math attitudes, students’ math achievement and interest in higher-level math is likely to remain low (Singh, Granville, & Dika, 2002), and as students continue with their math education, their math anxiety is likely to relapse. Consequently, interventions targeting problematic emotions alone is unlikely be effective long-term, and students may continue to experience educational difficulties.

Anxiety is not the only emotion experienced in the classroom. Emotions such as enjoyment, anger, hope, pride and boredom, can each affect students and learning in a variety of ways (Pekrun, Goetz, & Perry, 2002).  These emotions can be affected by classroom factors (e.g., curriculum content, environment), individual differences between students (e.g., genetic factors, general tendencies), and external factors (e.g., social interactions, home environment) (Pekrun & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2014). Given the number of students, variety of emotions and their causes, teachers cannot be expected to manage all of these experiences effectively.

Understanding how learning can occur under emotional states may be more constructive, given the complexities in directly managing students’ emotions. There are a number of significant benefits to adopting this approach:

  • We need to know whether emotions affect just test/assessment performance, or extend to affect student knowledge and skill development. Current models of learning are based on the assumption of neutral emotion for learners, which is unrealistic. Research examining student emotion tends measure the consequences for subject achievement or test performance, rather than learning itself. Longitudinal studies with measures of procedural and conceptual understanding (e.g., Alibali, Knuth, Hattikudur, McNeil, & Stephens, 2007), can be employed to examine learning of new concepts and procedures.
  • If emotional states are a result of classroom factors such as content difficulty, adapting learning contexts may be helpful to improve both learning and negative emotions
  • When external factors, such as a social interactions or parent separation, are affecting a child, they are at risk of falling behind. While schools are limited in their ability to change the students’ emotional reaction in such circumstances, they may be able to minimise the educational impact. (An important distinction: we are not suggesting ignoring students’ emotions, but rather to support students’ learning)
  • Some schools and teachers support students’ emotions and learning very well, but there is little in the way of research, education for teachers, or “best practice” to help inform decisions or policy.

So what is required to improve emotional and educational outcomes? Research is needed to understand the significant of different emotional states in educational setting, how they interact with learning content, the relationship between emotions, cognition and learning, and the relationship between neural activity and emotional states while learning.  These goals require the integration of education, psychology, and neuroscience perspectives.  Educational neuroscience offers a unique perspective in understanding emotions and learning, especially in children with learning disabilities. For example, neurophysiology methods can help to understand learners’ emotion-cognition patterns, psychology can help to characterize their cognitive abilities and disabilities, and educational research can inform the best practice for educators, given learners emotions and cognitive functioning. The outcomes of this research will likely contribute to our understanding of emotional and learning difficulties more generally, and provide an evidence-based model for interventions. In turn, effective interventions emotional and learning difficulties has the potential to improve students learning, alter career choices, and reduce teacher burden. 

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