Hello fellow bloggers! Welcome to my fourth blog. We are now beginning to narrow down our blog topics and my broader topic area will be related to what effect emotions and personality have on learning. Today I’m going to address what emotions are involved in assessments, with particular reference to stress.
As put by Bower (1992): emotion is evolution’s way of giving meaning to our lives. So what is emotion? In psychology and philosophy, emotion is the generic term for subjective,conscious experience that is characterised primarily by psychophysiological expressions, biological reactions and mental states. A mood, on the other hand, is an emotional state, differing from emotions in that it is less specific and have either a positive or negative valence.
Students regularly experience a variety of stress-related situations, many of which are daily hassles relating to teachers, classmates or workload. Our educational careers also provide major life events such as the transition from school to university, building new social networks and graduation (Boekaerts, 1999). With regards to stress-related situations, assessments and examinations profoundly influence an individual’s future, regularly inducing high amounts of psychological stress.
In exam periods, a negative emotional state can be regarded as a response to the anticipation of exam stress – as it peaks before the exam – and can be down-regulated within a short timespan (Carver & Sheier, 1994). Many people only associate negative emotions with examinations (Pekrun , 1992), while there is evidence from Spangler, Pekrun Kramer and Hofmann (2010) that in addition to anxiety, the values of hope are already at a high level before the exam, indicating an anticipatory response also for this positive emotion which may provide motivational functions for the student during an exam. Their study looked into what emotions students felt before, during and after an exam, with negative emotions (hopelessness/anxiety) most prominent before exams and decreasing rapidly afterwards. Positive emotions (joy/hope) were found to increase during the exam and peak afterwards. These positive emotions can be viewed as a response to the termination of the stressful situation.
The stress system relies on two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline works in the short term while cortisol has a large momentum and works in the long term. Regarding examination stress, your parasympathetic nervous system is activated over time leading to a build up of cortisol. In the study by Spangler et al, students with high trait anxiety and hopelessness also had high cortisol responses. Whereas there was a significant cortisol increase during the exam in highly anxious students, a significant decrease was observed in low anxious students. Thus, while in low anxious individuals the adrenocortical response has already peaked before the exam, in highly anxious individuals this activation continues and reaches its peak afterwards. Adrenocortical activation seems to be regulated by the individual’s characteristics affecting emotional responses to the situation, which could provide supplementary information about emotion regulation (Hellhammer, Heib, Hubert & Rolf, 1985).
Can stress be beneficial in education?
Emotions can be a powerful tool; upon the activation of a given emotion in a given situation, a collection of memories and a repertoire of action plans will be activated. We often find that we remember unpleasant memories more readily than pleasant memories; from a biological and evolutionary point of view this makes sense, as we need to remember something that hurt or threatened us. During an examination period, the stress we feel could be put towards good revision, as the stress hormones cause changes to our brain cells that can help memories to be stored more efficiently, if only we could see it that way!
The positivity or negativity of an individual’s mindset can greatly influence how one processes information; if you are experiencing negative emotions such as anxiety it can influence how you continue to interpret information you are presented with. Regarding examinations, this negative affect could either help or prevent you from remembering information: if the stress is too great, then the brain goes into an override mode making memory formation less efficient. However, with the right amount of stress, and possibly the right mindset, stress can enhance our control of learning and the process of memory.