A student sits to take a high-stakes, standardized test. He felt prepared before the test started, but now, his doubts begin to mount when he looks at the math problems. He feels his heart start to race and his palms get sweaty. He remembers how disappointed he was the last time he took a test like this, and he knows how important it is to do well on this attempt.

As an educator, what if you were able to shift this student’s perception of the task and possibly improve his performance?

Consider, now, recent research in which this familiar scenario occurred during an experiment looking at how emotion affects performance.  One group of students taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) was instructed to interpret their responses during the test in a positive way. The students in this group were told that research had shown that being a bit anxious doesn’t hurt performance and could even help students do better.  Students in the other group were told that many students become anxious during this kind of test, but these students were not told how to interpret the anxiety. On both a practice test in the laboratory and on the actual GRE up to three months later, author Jeremy Jamieson and colleagues found that students who had been told how to interpret their emotional response in a positive way scored higher on the math section than their peers who had not been given these instructions.

What can we learn from this experiment and others like it? On a basic level, it suggests that we could help students interpret their feelings positively during high-stakes tests, but this and other research suggests that paying attention to learners’ emotion in learning has broader implications as well:

  • Emotional responses are based on perception, not the task itself. The GRE was the same test for students in both groups; it wasn’t anything about the test itself that led to differences in students’ scores. The difference was in the way each group perceived not only the test but also their emotional responses to it.
  • This perception can be changed, and the change affects performance. The instructions given to the more successful group were remarkably simple, and yet these instructions had a dramatic effect on performance. In laboratory studies, simple manipulations affect, for example, decision-making skills, flexibility in thought, willingness to persist, and memory—all components of learning.

What does this mean for education? While educators consider students’ emotions on a daily basis, policymakers and large-scale curriculum developers have yet to follow suit.  This may be due to uncertainty about whether emotions really matter to learning, or a belief that little can be done about students’ emotional states. Neither assumption is correct. Trying to promote students’ positive perceptions of educational activities and encourage productive emotions will set a much better stage for success in learning. This is particularly critical for students who have a history of learning failures and have no reason to perceive educational tasks as positive.

Submitted by Samantha Daley, Research Scientist at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)


1 comment

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  • Great piece, Samantha. I will forward to my daughter who is preparing to take the GRE (and has a learning difference). I know she will make great use of this information. 😉

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