Exploring the Emotional Side of Learning

Image by Gino Crescoli from Pixabay

By Christine Goedhart

Can you recall a time when you felt joy, delight, or pride while learning something? What about a time when you felt anxious, bored, frustrated, or hopeless?

If you’ve ever experienced these emotions while learning, how did it impact your interest in what you were learning or your ability to perform on assessments? Did it influence how much time or effort you exerted in the learning process, or whether or not you procrastinated? What types of emotions have you found to be helpful for your learning, and what have seemed to get in the way?

I ask these questions because emotions aren’t something we talk about much in the realm of STEM education. We tend to approach learning as a very cerebral activity, putting much of our focus on the cognitive and metacognitive aspects of learning. But the emotional aspect of learning is just as important as these other parts, because our emotions ultimately influence our thoughts and behaviours toward learning.

Emotions can be experienced during the learning process itself, or can be associated with the outcome of the learning process, such as the grade or feedback received on an assessment. They can manifest as a long-term pattern (e.g., habitual test anxiety), and they can also be context-dependent, varying by discipline, course, topic, or activity. For example, a student could experience feelings of joy and pride in one course, and anger and hopelessness in another.

Because emotions are influential for learning, it is important that we attend to students’ emotions if we want them to learn. Below, we’ll explore why and how emotions impact learning and what you can do to help your students develop emotions that will facilitate, rather than hinder, their learning.

Why are emotions important for learning?

Emotions influence a number of things related to learning, such as:

    • Engagement
    • Motivation
    • Cognitive capacity (ability to think, remember, and perform)
    • Psychological health and well-being

For example, a student who feels enjoyment while learning something is more likely to be engaged and motivated to continue the learning process, whereas a student who feels fear and anxiety could experience a reduced ability to think clearly or be more susceptible to distractions.

Emotions also influence the decisions and behaviours that students make toward learning, such as what to pay attention to, what to put cognitive effort towards, and how much effort they are willing to exert, which ultimately impact their performance and their willingness to continue with the learning process.

Additionally, we tend to remember things that are associated with strong emotions. Think back to something that you remember from your own educational experience—I’ll bet that you were feeling something pretty powerful at that specific point in time.

What types of emotions are associated with learning?

Students can experience a wide range of emotions while learning, which can be broadly categorized as either positive (e.g., enjoyment, pride, confidence, hope) or negative (e.g, boredom, anger, anxiety, shame, hopelessness).

In general, when students experience positive emotions regarding their learning process, they tend to be more motivated and exhibit greater willingness and ability to engage in behaviours that promote their learning, such as dedicating time on task, exerting effort, and seeking help. In other words, feeling positive emotions facilitates students’ sense of engagement and agency with the learning task.

On the other hand, when students experience negative emotions regarding either the learning process or the outcome of their learning, they tend to disengage, procrastinate, and become more reliant on external direction, such as waiting for instruction on what to do next. They are also more likely to think that the task is difficult and to report that it takes more effort to complete.

So, positive emotions are helpful and negative emotions are harmful for learning?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. While positive emotions tend to facilitate learning and negative emotions tend to hinder learning, it’s much more nuanced than that. For example, sometimes negative emotions—such as anxiety, anger, or shame—can cause students to take action or try something different, and sometimes positive emotions—such as confidence and pride—can cause students to become complacent or not put in the effort needed to understand something. Whether or not an emotion is helpful for learning can depend on the individual situation of the students themselves or the context of the course.

What factors influence students’ emotions associated with learning?

According to the control-value theory (Pekrun, 2006), students’ emotions are largely shaped by two key things:

1) Their perceived control over learning activities and outcomes (i.e., I can do the activities and it will lead to success.)

Sense of control can be focused on the individual (e.g., Do I have what it takes to learn this, or do I fall short in some way?) or on the environment (e.g., Do I have the necessary support to learn this, or am I being set up to fail?). When students perceive that they have control over their own learning process and outcomes, they tend to experience more positive emotions about learning.

2) Their perceived value of the learning activities and outcomes (i.e., Learning this is important to me.)

The source of value can be intrinsic (e.g., Am I interested in this? Do I enjoy this?) or extrinsic (e.g., Is this going to get me something I want, or help me avoid something I don’t want?). When students value the learning process and outcome, they also tend to experience more positive emotions about learning.

But it’s even more complicated than this because student’s sense of control and value can be influenced by a number of other factors, including:

    • Prior experiences – previous performance in a similar setting or situation; degree of academic preparation
    • Classroom environment – the specific characteristics of the course, including the people, culture, structure, and assessment scheme
    • Academic self-concept – perception of one’s own abilities in a specific academic setting, especially in comparison with peers
    • Individual characteristics – personal identities (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity), (dis-)abilities, temperament, sociocultural background, mental health, etc.
    • Extracurricular activities – time and energy being spent on outside responsibilities

Students’ emotions around learning are also influenced by their achievement goal orientation, which is what is driving them to engage and put effort into their own learning. The major types of achievement goals are:

    • Mastery – desire to increase one’s knowledge, understanding, and skills
    • Performance-approach – desire to outperform others
    • Performance-avoidance – desire to avoid failure

In general, students with mastery goals are more likely to find enjoyment in the learning process and experience hope and pride in the learning outcome, whereas students with performance-avoidance goals are more prone to feeling anxiety, hopelessness, and shame around the learning process and outcome (Pekrun et al., 2006).

So, what can instructors do to help students develop emotions that are productive for learning?

As instructors, there are things that we can do to influence students’ perceptions of control and value and to foster emotions that facilitate and promote productive actions and attitudes toward learning. Here are some ideas:

  • Structure the course in a clear, organized, and understandable way – The more structure you provide, the easier it will be for students to know what to expect and what’s expected of them, helping them to feel more in control.
  • Have realistic expectations for students – Ensure that the demands of the course are aligned with the capabilities of students—not so difficult that they feel they are being set up for failure, and not so easy that they feel bored or devalue the learning.
  • Use authentic learning tasks and assessment strategies – Students are more likely to value activities that have real-world relevance or connect to their own personal experiences.
  • Get students involved – Engaging students in classroom activities and tasks helps them to feel connected to the course and supported to succeed.
  • Be enthusiastic and excited about the course material – When you show excitement and passion for what you are teaching, it helps students to care about and enjoy the course more.
  • Provide students with autonomy – Giving students choice in the types of topics and activities they engage with in the course helps them to feel more in control of their experience.
  • Discourage competition between students – Employ cooperative learning and group work in a way that promotes collaboration so that students feel supported, rather than judged or negatively compared with their peers.
  • De-emphasize grades – Encourage and strengthen the adoption of mastery achievement goals and reduce students’ feelings of anxiety by focusing on the learning process rather than the grade.
  • Build in opportunities for success – Avoid situations where students receive recurring negative feedback; too much negative feedback can cause students to feel discouraged and unable to control their own learning process.
  • Normalize failure – Framing failure as acceptable and an opportunity to learn can help students see how difficult experiences can be productive and positive, reducing their feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and shame.
  • Acknowledge the role of emotions on learning – Talk with students about the emotional aspect of learning and discuss strategies they can use to regulate and modulate the emotions they experience while learning.
  • Help students identify their perceptions of control and value – These thoughts can often be subconscious; bringing them to the conscious level can provide students the opportunity to address and change them.

There are a lot of ways to do each of these things. For example, some ways you can de-emphasize grades are by implementing an ungrading approach to your assessment strategy or by giving students feedback first and the grade later so that they focus more on the feedback. Similarly, you can normalize failure by using a productive failure approach, offering students multiple opportunities to improve their work, or sharing your own personal stories about how you’ve failed in the past.

The actual methods you use should be aligned with the needs of the students and what will best improve their perceptions of control and value. Therefore, the most important thing to do is to get to know your students and become attuned to their emotions and appraisals of control and value as they engage with your course. You can get this information by using published tools, such as the Achievement Emotions Questionnaire (Pekrun et al., 2011; Bieleke et al., 2021), the Achievement Goals Questionnaire (Pekrun et al., 2006), and the Test Emotions Questionnaire (Pekrun et al., 2004). You can also include these types of questions on things like wellness checks, reflection assignments, exam wrappers, and mid-course feedback activities.

The Bottom Line

The emotions that students experience throughout the learning process impact the learning that occurs, so it is important to attend to students’ emotions if we want them to learn. The more you know about your students and the emotions they experience, the easier it will be for you to structure your course and design interventions that promote and foster emotional experiences that are productive for students’ learning.


Bieleke, M., Gogol, K., Goetz, T., Daniels, L., Pekrun, R. (2021). The AEQ-S: A short version of the Achievement Emotions Questionnaire. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 65, 101940. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101940

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Perry, R. P., Kramer, K., Hochstadt, M. & Molfenter, S. (2004) Beyond test anxiety: Development and validation of the test emotions questionnaire (TEQ). Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 17:3, 287-316. https://doi.org/10.1080/10615800412331303847

Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational Psychology Review, 18, 315–341. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10648-006-9029-9

Pekrun, R., Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2006). Achievement goals and discrete achievement emotions: A theoretical model and prospective test. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(3), 583–597. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.98.3.583

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Frenzel A. C., Barchfeld, P., Perry, R. P. (2011). Measuring emotions in students’ learning and performance: The Achievement Emotions Questionnaire (AEQ). Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36(1), 36-48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2010.10.002

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