February 28th, 2014

Does It Matter How Students Feel about a Course?


faculty w students

A line of research (done mostly in Australia and Great Britain) has been exploring what prompts students to opt for deep or surface approaches to learning. So far this research has established strong links between the approaches taken to teaching and those taken to learning. If teachers are focused on covering large amounts of content and do so with few attempts to involve and engage students, students tend to learn the material by memorizing it, often without much understanding of it. This new work involved a 388-student cohort enrolled in a first-year biology course and explored the relationship between the ways students emotionally experience a course and the approach that they take to learning in the course.

Researchers had to start by constructing an instrument that captured students’ emotional responses to a course. Several different instruments have been developed and widely used to identify whether students are using learning approaches associated with deeply understanding the content or with superficially memorizing details. But no appropriate instrumentation was available to measure the emotional responses of students to courses, although related research provided a good starting point. The 18-item instrument these researchers developed contains three subscales: one with questions associated with positive emotions such as pride, hope, and confidence, and two that measure negative emotions, one associated with frustration, anger, and boredom and the second with anxiety and shame.

To explore the relationship between emotions and approaches to study, students filled out the new Student Experience of Emotions Inventory and the Revised Study Process Questionnaire (a 24-item inventory developed by Biggs, Kember, and Leung). They did so based on their experiences in a biology course. Researchers analyzed the data using three methodological approaches: correlation analyses, principle components factor analyses, and cluster analysis.

All three of these analyses “show significant relations between students’ emotional experience, their approaches to learning and their learning outcomes.” (p. 816) For example, the cluster analysis identified a group of students “who report, on average, experiencing relatively higher positive emotions, [who] also report using more of a deep approach to learning and achieve statistically higher learning outcomes. These same students also report lower negative emotions, and adopt learning approaches that have fewer surface elements. In the sample, another cluster of students who report relatively stronger negative emotions in learning, and adopt more surface approaches, have lower learning outcomes on average, and report lower positive emotions and less deep approaches to learning.” (p. 820) The higher and lower learning outcomes or academic achievements were measured by final course grades in this research.

In some ways these results are not surprising. They would be what most teachers would predict. If a student is not feeling positive about experiences in the course, that certainly affects the motivation to study and the amount of effort put into the course. The more pragmatic question involves what teachers can do to help student have positive emotional experiences in the course. Some might argue that the emotional responses of students are not something that should concern teachers, but if students’ emotional responses end up impacting how well they learn the material, which this research seems to indicate they do, that makes it more difficult for teachers to discount their importance.

Reference: Trigwell, K., Ellis, R. A., and Han, F. (2012). Relations between students’ approaches to learning, experienced emotions and outcomes of learning. Studies in Higher Education, 37 (7), 811-824.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 27.1 (2013): 2. © Magna Publications.

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2 comments on “Does It Matter How Students Feel about a Course?

  1. Interesting results! They might discuss this in the article (I don't have full text access) but it's possible that the causal chain ends with emotion, rather than starting with it. Earlier research in this area indicates that student personality traits predict approaches to learning, which in turn predicts academic achievement. Maybe students who are doing well in the class (as a result of their deep learning approach) end up feeling good about the class?

    Diseth, Å. (2003). Personality and approaches to learning as predictors of academic achievement. European Journal of personality, 17(2), 143-155.

  2. My doctoral dissertation leadership research primarily focused on the impact and relationship between leadership and adversity. However, a material additional component of my leadership was to evoke from the sixteen prominent leader's descriptions their concepts of leadership, as well as their styles of leadership, including transformational leadership.

    The sixteen prominent leader / research participants each had their own unique life journey in dealing with adversity and then working to become a successful and accomplished leader. One common theme is that obstacles or adversity in the early lives of the participants, such as the loss of a parent, poverty, discrimination, or even being a Holocaust victim, was not the seminal or most important event in their lives. They each grew through the experiences that came with increasing responsibilities in their careers, or through significant career changes. Successfully overcoming the obstacles in their adult lives helped them to grow. The encouragement, guidance, and examples from mentors played a significant part in their lives.

    My in depth Doctoral dissertation research into leadership and adversity has shown me that a mentor, especially a servant-leader mentor, can teach a person how to overcome the obstacles and adversities of life. Enlightened mentors or servant-leader mentors are a classic example of someone who uses transformation leadership techniques and skills in the life.

    The leader I interviewed commented on the importance of being the enlightened and caring mentor can guide from their own personal experiences with adversity. They are some who has been there and has successfully overcome the difficult problem or major adversity. In some cases, mentors may teach mentees which way to go based on their experience of taking a wrong path and having learned a better way. The mentor may have experienced and overcome some other, even more horrendous, difficulty in his or her life's journey that could inspire the mentee to higher heights.

    The sixteen prominent leaders that I personally interviewed identified nine important qualities of a leader. Many of these leadership traits, including though usually associated with transformational leadership, are found in the lst from my leadership research:

    1. Honesty or integrity
    2. A high level of people skills
    3. Initiative, assertiveness, drive, or determination
    4. Excellent communication skills or willingness to speak up, take a position, or take charge
    5. Vision (being forward-looking)
    6. Desire or passion to lead and inspire
    7. Positive attitude and self-confidence; charisma
    8. Knowledge of the business and/or group task at hand; competence
    9. The ability to overcome adversity or obstacles

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