Most teachers would consider themselves adept at reading students' emotions. Our pastoral duties dictate that we need to be able to spot potential problems and help to find solutions. Yet how often do we apply this skill of reading emotions to our teaching?
The answer is not often enough. Learning is not only a cognitive process but also an emotional one. Emotional states experienced by students can impact on achievement, with negative emotions such as anxiety and fear having a profound effect on wellbeing and, consequently, academic success.
Anxiety, for example, has been found to have a detrimental effect on working memory (the short-term store used for activities such as mental arithmetic and problem-solving). Furthermore, research has found that anxiety over high-stakes exams leads to lower mean scores.
Negative emotions narrow our cognitive processes, activating more basic, instinctual patterns of behaviour. Fear causes us to withdraw from an anxiety-provoking situation and avoid such situations in the future. Consequently, fear of failure (which is more prevalent in situations involving high-stakes testing) motivates learners to disengage from situations where failure is a possible outcome.
Failure is often interpreted as a direct assault on our intelligence, something that must be avoided at all costs in order to safeguard our self-esteem. Young people begin to find it much more preferable to be seen as lazy than stupid, leading them to employ strategies to explain away failure or deliberately sabotage their academic outcomes.
Beneath the bravado
Teachers need to become much better at spotting negative emotions and finding strategies to deal with them. Unfortunately, identifying such emotions can prove problematic, especially with boys, who have a tendency to conceal their anxieties and fears beneath bravado.
Boys display a greater predisposition towards failing to complete work in order to avoid the possibility of a bad grade or negative feedback. Some bright boys will do their best to fly under the radar, while less able boys might simply disengage from the process, thus avoiding the possibility of failure.
Although girls will also apply these tactics, in general they display greater pre-emptive tendencies. For example, when handing in work, they might say it's probably wrong or they didn't really understand the task. This leads to a win-win: either they will have done better than expected and their self-esteem remains intact, or they will have done badly but anticipated the situation, so, again, self-esteem is not adversely affected.
Identifying negative emotions is one thing; dealing with them is another matter entirely. If the main problem is fear of failure, then creating more fear can only be counterproductive. Psychologists David Putwain and Richard Remedios investigated the "fear appeals" used by many teachers. They found that emphasising the consequences of failure (such as, "If you fail your GCSE's you'll never get a good job") negatively impacted on student motivation because the focus was on avoiding failure rather than obtaining success. Conversely, reframing failure positively - as an important part of the learning process - helps to take the fear away.
Andrew Martin, an educational psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has further suggested that feedback and goal-setting can reduce the prevalence of self-defeating strategies. Martin recommends using "growth goals": incremental steps that encourage students to do a little bit better each time. Comparing children with their peers can be demotivating, whereas carefully structured feedback around personal, "better than before" goals enhances intrinsic motivation, reduces the fear of failure and combats other negative emotions.
It's not realistic to think that we can eradicate negative emotions in our students and there's a good case for not attempting to do so. Nevertheless, if we focus on the debilitating aspects of fear and anxiety, we can begin to embed strategies will begin to change the way young people perceive their successes and failures.
Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teaches at a secondary school in North Yorkshire. Find him at @PsychologyMarc
Ng, E and Lee, K (2015) "Effects of trait test anxiety and state anxiety on children's working memory task performance", Learning and Individual Differences bit.lyTraitTestAnxiety
Putwain, D W, Daly, A L, Chamberlain, S et al (2015) "Academically buoyant students are less anxious about and perform better in high-stakes examinations", British Journal of Educational Psychology, 853: 247-63 bit.lyAcademicallyBuoyant
Putwain, D and Remedios, R (2014) "The scare tactic: do fear appeals predict motivation and exam scores?", School Psychology Quarterly, 294: 503-16 bit.lyScareTactic