Does It Matter How Students Feel about a Course?

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.