Emotions in Learning

In the acclaimed book How Humans Learn, Joshua Eyler observed that “Positive emotions such as happiness, joy and humor are beneficial for students learning, but they are seldom part of our conversation about teaching in higher education” (2018, p. 148). This is a pity since student emotions are really important and have been found to affect a number of important learning outcomes, including intention to drop out (Ekornes, 2011), self-regulated learning (You & Kang, 2014,), motivation (Artino, 2009a), satisfaction (Artino, 2009b) and grades (Nicelscu, 2015; Ruthig et al., 2008). There have consequently been calls for researchers to take the affective experiences of students into account when designing courses (e.g., Jena, 2019). This brief guide is intended to help instructors do just that by providing an overview of the control-value theory of emotions and offer some practical ways in which instructors can incorporate awareness of emotions into the classroom.

According to control-value theory, the most relevant emotions in the classroom are called achievement or academic emotions, that is, “emotions tied directly to achievement activities or achievement outcomes” (Pekrun, 2006, p. 317). These include emotions such as anger, pride, enjoyment, anxiety and hopelessness. Pekrun’s (2006) theory posits that emotions arise out of two key appraisals: control and value. Control refers to the degree to which students feel like they can influence outcomes or activities, while value refers to the degree to which a student feels that the learning activity is important. Thus, a student may experience anxiety when a test or assignment is important (high value), but they are unclear of what is expected of them (low control). A student may also experience boredom when a task is unimportant (low value) and is not challenging (high control).

Although the research is clear that, for the most part, positive emotions affect learning outcomes in positive ways and negative emotions have detrimental effects, this is not always the case. For example, Artino (2009b) found that frustration, after controlling for other variables, led to increase metacognition presumably because students had to spend additional cognitive resources to understand the material (see How Students Learn). Thus, researchers should not assume that all negative emotions will lead to a decrease in learning. However, instructors would do well to ensure that students have a positive affective experience! Here are six ways in which instructors can do just that:

  • To help increase appraisals of value and thus positive emotions, instructors should make the real-world applicability of the content clear, and they should therefore incorporate authentic tasks into the course (Artino et al., 2012). The more that students know why an assignment is valuable in the real-world, the more likely that they will see it as valuable*. For example, an introductory philosophy class can link different forms of logic to their applicability in job interviews, or course on statistics can focus on common concerns such as whether or not having a more children results in an increased carbon footprint.
  • Instructors should also “help students identify and set challenging, proximal goals” (Artino et al., 2012, p. 155). Assignments that are too easy may result in low appraisals of value and thus students may experience boredom which, in turn, may lead to a decrease in learning. Note that while this applies to “busy work,” it also applies to important tasks that are simply not challenging enough for the student.
  • Related to point 2 above, instructors should be cautious of assigning tasks that are too demanding. Goetz et al. (2013) found excessive demands led to feelings of hopelessness which, needless to say, is not likely to lead to successful learning experiences. This is not to suggest that courses should decrease rigor but rather that sufficiently complex tasks should be assigned in such a way that the student feels that the task is achievable. Scaffolding is one helpful to accomplish this.
  • Identify which parts of the environment are likely to negatively affect student emotions. Kahu et al. (2014) note that emotions and the environment have a reciprocal relationship. For example, a student who finds a lecture enjoyable is likely to be more motivated, which then results in the student enjoying the course more. One simple way to do identify elements that are negatively affecting students is simply to ask them. You can do this via an online survey or ask student leaders to gather the information for you.
  • Appraisals of control and student confidence can be boosted by providing feedback that is timely and explicit (Artino et al., 2012). Vague feedback is difficult to implement and thus may decrease a student’s sense of control (see Effective Feedback). Gibbs and Simpson’s (2004) suggest that feedback is timely when it is “received by students while it still matters to them and in time to pay attention to further learning or receive further assistance” (p. 18). That is, timely feedback is contextual and will depend on the nature of the assignment, but one can hardly err on the side of being too quick to provide feedback.
  • Linnenbrink-Garcia et al. (2016) write that instructors should “Emphasize learning and understanding and de-emphasize performance, competition, and social comparison.” (p.233). They note that one way to do this is to get rid of high-stakes testing as it can lead to anxiety and shame (see Ungrading).

Reflection questions

  1. To what extent do I take into account student emotions in the design of my courses?
  2. Are there any strategies that I can incorporate that would help students feel an increased sense of control?
  3. In what ways do I attempt to make the students feel that the course content is valuable?
  4. How specific and timely is the feedback that I give to students?
  5. Do I have any measures in place that would allow me to identify common emotions experienced by my students?

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Artino, A. R. (2009b). Think, feel, act: Motivational and emotional influences on military students’ online academic success. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 21(2), 146–166. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12528-009-9020-9

Artino, A. R., Holmboe, E. S., & Durning, S. J. (2012). Control‐value theory: Using achievement emotions to improve understanding of motivation, learning, and performance in medical education: AMEE Guide No. 64. Medical Teacher, 34(3), e148–e160. https://doi.org/10.3109/0142159X.2012.651515

Ekornes, S. (2021). The impact of perceived psychosocial environment and academic emotions on higher education students’ intentions to drop out. Higher Education Research & Development, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2021.1882404

Eyler, Joshua. How Humans Learn : the Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching. First edition., West Virginia University Press, 2018.

Gibbs, G., & Simpson, C. (2004). Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (1), 3 – 31.

Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Patall, E. A., & Pekrun, R. (2016). Adaptive Motivation and Emotion in Education: Research and Principles for Instructional Design. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(2), 228–236. https://doi.org/10.1177/2372732216644450

Goetz, T., Lüdtke, O., Nett, U. E., Keller, M. M., & Lipnevich, A. A. (2013). Characteristics of teaching and students’ emotions in the classroom: Investigating differences across domains. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 38(4), 383–394. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2013.08.001

Jena, R. K. (2019). Understanding academic achievement emotions towards business analytics course: A case study among business management students from India. Computers in Human Behavior, 92, 716–723. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.08.024

Kahu, E., Stephens, C., Leach, L., & Zepke, N. (2015). Linking academic emotions and student engagement: Mature-aged distance students’ transition to university. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 39(4), 481–497. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2014.895305

Niculescu, A. C., Tempelaar, D., Leppink, J., Dailey, A., Segers, M., & Gijselaers, W. (2015). Feelings and performance in the first year at university: Learning-related emotions as predictors of achievement outcomes in mathematics and statistics. Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology, 13(3), 432–462. https://doi.org/10.14204/ejrep.37.15012

Pekrun, R. (2006). The Control-Value Theory of Achievement Emotions: Assumptions, Corollaries, and Implications for Educational Research and Practice. Educational Psychology Review, 18(4), 315–341. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-006-9029-9

Ruthig, J. C., Perry, R. P., Hladkyj, S., Hall, N. C., Pekrun, R., & Chipperfield, J. G. (2008). Perceived control and emotions: Interactive effects on performance in achievement settings. Social Psychology of Education, 11(2), 161–180. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-007-9040-0

You, J. W., & Kang, M. (2014). The role of academic emotions in the relationship between perceived academic control and self-regulated learning in online learning. Computers & Education, 77, 125–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2014.04.018

*Educators who hold that learning is of intrinsic value regardless of real-world applicability may, understandably, object to such a recommendation. Even if an assignment has no real-world applicability, the learning-related value inherent in the assignment should still be made clear to students.

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