An academic semester, a dissertation and nine blogs later we come to my reflections on the module: the Science of Education.

Thank you for bearing with me throughout these weeks. At the beginning of this semester, it felt like we were “chucked in at the deep end” with this module. With no real guidance as to the topics we were to write about – apart from that it must look at the application of psychology in education – I felt like there was too much freedom and that my grades would suffer as a result. However, after the first two weeks of blogging and watching my peers present their findings on a Thursday, I realised the real benefits of this gem of a module.

Throughout this degree I have tended to learn only what the syllabus requires of me, or what will be tested on the exam (doing as little extra reading as possible). However, with there being no real learning objectives, I have found myself researching further into this topic and engaging more with the subject areas. I don’t feel like I must spend all my time learning what must be learned for the exam, as there is no exam; instead, I feel able to research around the topics and discover more about what interests me, rather than what the module says I should be interested in.

Regarding the bi-weekly talks, although hesitant at first, I now understand how beneficial they can be. They allow us to present information that has sparked our imaginations and grasped our attention. There was nothing worse than giving a POPPS talk on Statistics, as it held no interest to me whatsoever! But with this module, we are able to talk about what we feel is pertinent to the Science of Education, and no matter the opinions of others, whether they feel it is right or wrong, we have the freedom to do so. I also believe that in doing the talks we are much more ready for our oral presentations regarding our dissertations.

What I love about the blogs is that we can present an area of research each week and others will reply and add to your work. Rather than it being all about the grades, we can integrate ourselves into many different topics, learning as we go. One week we may study “Attention and its Effects on Learning”, but that same week we discover other research about “Depression and Learning” or “Mindfulness in the Classroom”. Without even realising we are taking in vast amounts of information that, had we been in a differently laid out module, we would never have come across.

Many students worried that Jesse Martin would do absolutely nothing in this module, however, in removing the spoon from our mouths, he has ensured that students have engaged thoroughly, for which I am very grateful. I was unsure at the start, when he explained how he was very much an autonomy-supportive teacher, however he has regained my confidence and surpassed my expectations as being a fantastic teacher. In allowing us freedom throughout the course, he has furthered my understanding of how teaching should be. I feel we have been given a chance to truly express our beliefs and opinions, that we are passionate about, in a rich environment.


I hope you have all had a great Easter, despite the crazy weather! This is my synthesis blog – summarising previous blogs, how the topics have developed and forming my opinion regarding emotion in education. I will also discuss what you, as a reader, should take from my blog.

So, our first few blogs had no particular direction or structure (at least mine didn’t) and were meant to develop our thinking on a broad range of topics, so we could pick one and develop it. My initial two blogs discussed how creativity and individuality disappear within children when they begin school and how children should be allowed to make mistakes, in order to learn from them and create a deeper understanding of topic matter. I asked the question: “What is it about education that dulls individuals’ minds?”

My third blog looked at how class size reduction affects learning and I concluded that smaller class sizes showed a substantial improvement in early learning and cognitive studies. I also explored how one would define a ‘good’ teacher whilst establishing that experience and a caring personality are essential.

We all started to narrow down our topic choices for the fourth blog. For my overall topic I chose ‘the effect of emotions on learning’. I began my topic by looking into stress and its effect on taking examinations. Examinations bring about negative emotional states, which can be viewed as a response to the anticipation of the exam. However, exams also carry with them some positive emotions; hope and joy have been found to be at high levels before, and increase further during examinations. From research, I have come to believe that an individual’s mind-set greatly determines the outcome of an exam. I also think there are key variables affecting an individual’s success: preparation is paramount; learning information over time helps it to sink in and aids deeper understanding of the topic whilst reducing stress levels. Cramming the night before increases chronic stress over time and acute stress as you panic in realisation at the amount you have to learn! Recognising that exams carry negative connotations should jolt pupils into dealing with exam periods more effectively. Yet each year, thousands proceed down the same stressful route as before, whilst promising that next time, more effort to be organised and prepared is required.

Implications? Well, from a young age there could be weekly time-out lessons, in which all we have learned that week is summarised, addressing any questions or concerns we have, so that by examination time, we have condensed and digested the information, decreasing stress and negative emotions. Dare I say that exams could become fun? A chance to show what has been learned? Rather than a demon waiting to catch you out and drag results down to an F, or heaven forbid, a U?

Blog five: which sadly had the subject of depression (pun intended). I wanted to see how children manifest depression; how teachers and school psychologists might gauge the severity of such depression; and whether or not depressed children should qualify for a special education. Now, if you have read this blog, you will already know that depression isn’t just a single symptom of sadness; it can be categorised into affective, cognitive, motivational, physical and vegetative symptoms. In summary, children manifest depression similarly to adults. However you look at it, each symptom affects the pupil’s learning ability. Feeling sad and lacking the ability to experience pleasure, means that no matter how intriguing the subject, a child will not feel the same draw and want to learn. Negatively evaluating yourself causes a lack of self-belief and could cause a child to give up on his studies, as he can’t see how he will succeed. Difficulties in concentration also decrease performance, as the child is caught up with his depression and ‘stuck’ in his own head. Sociability also suffers, as he cannot face meeting up with friends or involving himself in games.

Tackling depression: Perhaps introducing a recurring amateur ‘therapy session’, allowing teachers to see how the children are behaving or when a child acts out-of-sorts, so they can intervene when appropriate.

At the end of this blog, I asked whether depressed children should qualify for special education programming, and discovered sadly, they do not. From comments and further research I now turned to two other possible roads towards combatting depression: drugs and mindfulness. Sarah maintained that using antidepressants such as fluoxetine could be effective in reducing depressive behaviours. However, research suggests that antidepressants may cause suicidal thinking in children. Can we justify taking the risk of exploiting a child to such dangerous thoughts, when they are already in a vulnerable state? A second option, highlighted by Jack, introduces Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) into the school curriculum. This approach has had success in treating both symptoms and relapse rates of depression in children, without the need for medication or special education. Mindfulness techniques are useful not only for the depressed, but for all.

And breathe out. I realise this is lengthy, but bear with me!

Blog the Sixth! I looked into student motivation and how it seems to be decreasing with each academic year. What is going on within the education system that is destroying the desire and drive to learn? Firstly, I addressed the structure and allocation of rewards, and found that if an exam isn’t in the foreseeable future, the benefits of keeping up with reading and module work will be suppressed by more immediate gratification (partying, video games, etc.). A way of dealing with this problem could be to drop that final exam, replacing it with smaller examinations spread out over the course. That way, students do not lose motivation if an exam is just around the corner.

Another issue facing pupils is that other priorities – romantic relationships, sports, and social activities – compete for attention with mundane academic work. In tackling this issue, schools could assign reasonable amounts of work, which is proportionate to the importance of the module. I believe that schools have a responsibility to keep students engaged with even the most monotonous and dreary subjects. They could design class activities or games to keep students entertained and motivated to learn, as we cannot hide from this problem.

And here we are! Blog seven! I explored the short and long-term consequences of bullying and exclusion, and how it affects victims, bullies and bystanders; and how schools might prevent bullying. Bullying is prominent in schools and the workplace worldwide and unfortunately, it seems to be in our human nature.

Relating back to my previous blog on depression, bullying can cause such negative emotions for the victim and the bully. Most of the time, people do not choose to be a bully; it is a by-product of witnessed physical or verbal abuse, which is translated into their own actions. Stopping such behaviour at an early age and prohibiting it, is essential for children to learn how to deal with disliked individuals in a more proactive manner. Even with the best will in the world, teachers themselves often experience and practice more attuned and skilled bullying with other adults and pupils alike. And so we come to an impasse. If adults are seen to indulge in bullying, how can we expect children to ignore this behaviour?

What have I learned?

Well, emotion covers a range of aspects affecting attention, performance, motivation, sociability, health, memory, learning, reasoning and sleep (to name but a few). Sometimes it can be beyond our control, but as we grow up we have to try to learn to manage our emotions, so external factors don’t affect our work: a bad argument with the wife cannot be taken into the office in the form of an irritable mood to be taken out on colleagues.

Regarding education: teachers need to learn how fluctuating emotions can affect a pupil’s work, so that they can do their best to be approachable and help children through difficult problems. Introducing weekly summary groups so that stress doesn’t build and some mindfulness-based techniques, to allow students to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of the fast-paced academic world, so they can tackle their work to the best of their ability. Stress is a natural part of life, but learning to deal with it effectively during examination periods – while challenging – enables more proactive thinking about the subject matter itself, rather than worrying about the exam and the subsequent grade. Although stress can be good to motivate us, too much can be harmful, so finding the balance is essential.

When our negative emotions take over, we can be faced with a period of depressed thinking and behaviour; too often people overlook this insidious nemesis plaguing children and adults as a hopelessness; an inability to cope. Throughout the education system we must equip children with strategies that teach them how to cope with over-powering emotions, so they don’t have to suffer in silence. Children must be shown that coming forward with problems won’t make them seem vulnerable or weak, but strong in their ability to admit when they need help. Communication is vital for prohibiting negative emotional states and for creating a safe environment, where children don’t feel too exposed to or defenceless, against bullying.

For you, the reader, I hope I have presented my findings in a manner that expresses both sides of the argument, so that you can form your own opinion without bias.

“He who asks a question is a fool for a minute. He who doesn’t is a fool forever.”


Geeks. Gamers. Goths. Nerds. Overachievers. Loners. Queen Bees. Choose your euphemism, but my blog this week will address concerns for all these groups.

What do the above have in common? Exclusion.

Exclusion is a familiar experience that most people in these groups have experienced. Maybe you were the ‘fat kid’ or the one who never got chosen for the sports teams first; at some point you were excluded or shunned. And it hurt. A lot. Humans are social creatures and research into the brain regions involved with social exclusion, have shown that those areas activated for physical pain are also activated for social pain (Eisenberger, Lieberman and Williams, 2003), demonstrating that we have adapted physical pain to warn us when our social relationships are threatened (Panksepp, 1988).

Bullying is a multifaceted, coercive behaviour that is defined as ‘any repeated negative activity or aggression intended to harm someone who is perceived by peers as being less physically or psychologically powerful than the aggressor’ (Glew, et al., 2005). It would be nice if we could simply say, “kids will be kids”, and parents often do, however nowadays, it can take place in school, around the neighbourhood and on the Internet, making it an increasing problem throughout the world.

This week I will address the short and long term consequences of bullying for both victims and bullies; the characteristics of victims, bullies and bystanders; and the prevention of bullying.

Short-term consequences (by no means an exhaustive list): First of all, as a result of being bullied, victims may experience extreme depression. Kaltiala-Heino, Rimpelä, Marttunen, Rimpelä and Rantanen (1999) observed secondary schools in Finland and found that there was an increased prevalence of depression and severe suicidal ideation among victims. Bullied victims may also experience a loss of self-esteem/self-worth, trouble sleeping, anxiety, truancy and a decrease in grades. Woods and Wolke (2004) found that bullying and victimisation were associated with poor academic achievement.

The short-term consequences for bullies are similar to that of the victims, with a general decrease in academic performance (Holt, Finkelhor & Kaufman Kantor, 2007), truancy and a prevalence of depression (Kaltiala-Heino et al., 1999). Bullies also experience difficulty in maintaining friendships and have a higher risk for alcohol/substance abuse (Ialongo, Werthamer, Kellam, Brown, Wang & Lin, 1999).

Long-term consequences of bullying that affect victims include chronic depression – which can lead to suicidal tendencies – self-destructive behaviours and a likelihood that the individual will partake in alcohol or substance abuse. Whereas the long-term consequences for the bully include a continued difficulty in maintaining relationships, an increased chance of spousal/child abuse as an adult, and a study by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, found that nearly 60 percent of bullies are convicted of crime by the age of 24.

So what determines whether someone becomes a bully, a victim or a bystander?

Becoming a bully: bullying behaviour is a ‘red flag’ that a child has not learned to control his or her aggression. Children who bully have typically witnessed physical or verbal violence/aggression at home, leading them to have a positive view of the behaviour (Rigby, 2005). Bullies may have trouble following rules, show little concern for the feelings of others and often expect others to look up to them or behave according to the wishes of the bullies (Lyznicki, McCaffree and Robinowitz, 2004).

Becoming a victim: passive victims tend to lack defense skills, be more anxious and sensitive than their peers and will not retaliate when confronted. Provocative victims are impulsive and tend to annoy the bully. Relational victims are usually excluded from the group or ‘clique’ and tend to lack the social skills to fit in. A typical victim is usually different in some way; Norwich and Kelly (2004) show that pupils with special educational needs for moderate learning difficulties, experience far more bullying from both children in mainstream schools and even their own peers.

Becoming a bystander you are part of the largest group affected by bullying behaviour; these students are considered the “caring majority, 85% of children who are neither bullies nor victims” (Garity, Jens, Porter, Sager & Short-Camilli, 1998). Bystanders are either part of the problem – watching and encouraging for the thrill or to show off – or the solution – doing nothing for fear of being the next victim.

Prevention or Cure?

The need for evidence-based intervention programmes: bullying has gradually crept onto the official school agenda as something that needs to be intervened and prevented. But how can we address this pressing issue? The Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme (OBPP)  is a whole-school programme proven to reduce bullying in a school setting. Statistics from their site show that there are significant reductions in antisocial behaviour, including bullying, truancy and school violence. They also report significant improvements in the classroom ‘climate’. Bauer, Lozano and Rivara (2006) found that relational and physical victimisation decreased, with students actively intervening in bullying incidents. Similarly, Olweus (2005) studied approximately 21,000 students who partook in the OBPP and found substantial reductions (32-49%) in bullying problems.

It is clear that bullying will never be cured. Exclusion among students is prevalent in schools and spills out into the work environment. It is so common that there is almost a social tolerance regarding bullying: “It happens to everyone. Get over it.” It can take hold of you from a young age and stay with you, forever etched into your memory. But if we can grasp this demon from nursery to our schools, establishing rules and interventions to prevent bullying, then the children of tomorrow may treat each other with more respect and kindness and be able to carry that through the rest of their lives.


Panksepp, J. (1988). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Garrity, C., Jens, K., Porter, W., Sager, N., & Short-Camilli, C. (1998). Bully proofing your school: A comprehensive approach for elementary schools. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.


One of the most prominent academic problems plaguing today’s teenage youth is a lack of motivation toward academic activities; the paucity of research in education for motivation enhancement is surprising (Ames, 1992). The role of schools and their responsibility in providing students with the necessary motivation to achieve is also up for discussion. The issues regarding a lack of motivation are not exclusively restricted to academic subjects; however, there are concerns over healthy lifestyles and a lack of motivation of many students to participate in regular physical activity (Corbin & Pangrazi, 1992).

Studying motivation looks at the causes of goal-oriented activity (Atkinson, 1964). Adaptive motivational patterns promote the establishment, maintenance and attainment of personally challenging and personally valued achievement goals. Maladaptive motivational patterns, therefore, are associated with a failure: an inability to establish reasonable, valued goals; an inability to effectively strive towards such goals; or ultimately, an inability to attain valued goals that are potentially within one’s reach (Dweck, 1986).

Year after year, numerous students find themselves in a position where they have no desire to carry out academic tasks. This absence of such motivation can lead to feelings of frustration and discontentment, which encumber productivity and even affect students’ well-being. So why do students neglect their studies? And what strategies can we apply to fight this lack of motivation?

  • Many students can be demotivated by the structure/allocation of rewards: the structure of a course and its allocation of rewards can in itself be enough to encourage or discourage effort (Ames & Russell, 1984). Students may lose motivation to keep up with required reading or revision when their exam is not for another few months; the reward of finishing the module is too far ahead for them to see such a payoff. Likewise, if the teacher/lecturer does not sufficiently distinguish between excellent and poor performance, the student will be less likely to strive for excellence. Furthermore, if the grading criteria are unclear or inconsistently applied, students’ motivation will likely suffer.

Strategies: Highlight connections between graded and ungraded tasks – students will be more motivated to pay attention in classes if they understand how it will aid them in future exams: to keep up with readings if they know it will benefit them towards writing assignments (Meece, 1988). An interesting article about the study conducted by Deci and Ryan (1969) illustrates nicely how rewards can affect student motivation.

  • Students have other priorities that compete for their time and attention: they often struggle to balance different goals, including academic (getting good grades), social (making friends/finding a romantic partner) and physical (getting adequate exercise/sleep) (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier & Ryan, 1991). Completing their work to a high standard may have little importance when compared to maintaining a romantic relationship.

Strategies: Assign a reasonable amount of work, ensuring that the workload is commensurate with the size of the module (course credits). Students should also be held accountable for their work; to gain good results they prioritise work they must do, (e.g. to get a good grade) over work they do not necessarily need to do. So linking course work to an outcome they value, such as good grades, will motivate them towards such an outcome (Gorham & Christophel, 1992).

  • Students do not believe that their efforts will improve their performance: if a module is known to be difficult, they may feel that no amount of effort they put in will yield anything substantial in terms of achievement. Similarly, early assignments that show discouraging grades may put them off working hard later on as they feel they won’t be able to do the work well. Indeed, Patrick, Skinner and Connell (1993) suggest that students who are most detached from school also have little belief in their academic ability. We can understand then, that some students attribute their academic difficulties to their perceived low competence (Legault & Green-Demers, 2006).

Strategies: To be motivated, students need a standard to aim for that is both challenging and attainable; assignments or quizzes that assess a student’s level of ability early on in the course, can provide a lecturer with knowledge as to the right level of challenge for the students. Having ‘help sessions’ available throughout the duration of the course will also help students communicate difficulties they may be experiencing (Dweck, 1986).

Enhancing student motivation is essential to keeping them engaged with the course and for attaining good grades. To get our students motivated, we not only have to have course and exam structures that can be rewarding, but the teachers themselves need to be highly motivated: teachers must remember the reasons that brought them into teaching in the first place and rekindle that fire within themselves. They then have the opportunity to start a fire and keep it going within their motivated students. Through soft challenges and rewards for the youngest pupils up to respectable challenges and the rewards that come with such achievements for the older students.

Reference: Atkinson, J.W. (1964). An introduction to motivation. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.


Occasionally feeling sad is commonplace. Curiously, it is an emotion that can make life more interesting, with lots of art, music and poetry having been inspired by sadness. Depression, on the other hand, is more serious, with the number of people living with depression in the UK rising by nearly half a million in just three years. In this blog I will explore how children manifest depression, how teachers and school psychologists gauge the severity of the disorder and whether depressed children qualify for special education programming.

According to Axis I: Clinical Syndromes within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV-Revised (DSM-IV-TR, 2000), children manifest depression in a manner analogous to adults, with some developmentally appropriate differences i.e. decreased school performance, and age-specific differences i.e. separation anxiety. Childhood depression is not easily alleviated and it will become apparent in a few moments that it is more than just a single symptom of sadness: it comprises a multitude of symptoms that reliably co-occur (Carlson & Cantwell, 1980). We can divide these symptoms into categories also used to describe depression in adults: affective, cognitive, motivational, physical and vegetative symptoms (Davidson & Turnbull, 1986).

So, how do children manifest these symptoms of depression? (A brief list):


  • Dysphoric (Sad) Mood – feeling “crumby”, “empty”, “blue” and “down” – this symptom is not specific to childhood depression, however, what may distinguish the experience of this symptom from other disorders is the severity, frequency and duration of the sadness.
  • Angry or Irritable Mood – a highly problematic symptom, a common emotion among depressed children (Kashani et al. 1995); anger has been found to be extremely resistant to therapeutic change (Turner, Holtzman & Mancl, 2007).
  • Anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure from enjoyable experiences) – Case Study: M.G. smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, however, he experienced such severe anhedonia and a lack of motivation that he chose not to go outside to smoke a cigarette when he had the option to (Luna, 2002).
  • Loss of Mirth Response – depressed children are less capable of responding to humour.


  • Negative Self-EvaluationsKendall, Stark and Adam (1990) show that depressed children negatively evaluate their performances, abilities and other personal qualities.
  • Difficulty Concentrating – becoming lost in a world of negative thoughts; Kashani, Barbero and Bolander (1981) reported that 77% of depressed children had difficulty concentrating and making decisions.


  • Social Withdrawal – child declines invitations to play.
  • Decreased Academic Performance – 71% of a sample of depressed children had academic difficulties (Brumback, 1977); 62% of Kaslow et al.’s (1984) sample were experiencing a decrease in academic performance – connected to negative self-evaluations.


  • Fatigue – differentiated from lack of sleep in having no energy, impacting upon the child’s daily activities
  • Change in Appetitie/Weight – anorexia nervosa; bulimia nervosa.
  • Aches and Pains – in Brumback’s (1977) sample 50% of the depressed youths experienced somatic complaints.
  • Sleep Disturbance – insomnia, hypersomnia, circadian reversal, non-restorative sleep.

GAUGING THE SEVERITY OF DEPRESSION: There are three key concerns surrounding the way in which depression in children is gauged/diagnosed by parents, teachers and school psychologists. The first is that because children’s externalising or disruptive behaviours attract more attention and are more readily expressed, compared to a child with internal, subjective suffering – depression is sometimes overlooked, might not be recognised, might not be assessed (Hammen & Rudolph, 2003). Secondly, due to the high level of comorbidity in childhood depression, with particular reference to conduct and other disruptive behaviours, it is often believed that depression is ‘masked’. Thirdly, some features of the symptoms of depression –such as irritable mood, difficulty concentrating and fatigue – are more likely to be typical of children than of adults, meaning that age-specific modifications of the diagnostic criteria are needed in order for school psychologists to recognise a child suffering from depression.

SPECIAL EDUCATION PROGRAMMING: DO DEPRESSED CHILDREN QUALIFY?: Depression is overlooked in the special education population, as it frequently co-exists with at least one other disability, such as a conduct or attention deficit disorder (Heller, Holtzman & Messick, 1982). However children can ‘qualify’ for special education if their depression is severe enough.

Children can enter special education through two different routes: Medical Referral and Psycho-Educational Assessment Referral (Bussing et al., 1998). Medical referral usually takes place at an early age and those children usually exhibit the following types of disabilities: sensory (hearing/visual impairments), physical (orthopaedic impairments), medical (chronic illnesses) or mental (cognitive disabilities).

Children who enter through the second route tend to do so later on in their educational careers, perhaps presenting the following types of disabilities: specific learning disability, other health impairment (ADHD), autism, emotional disturbance (pervasive levels of depression) or speech and language impairments.

In conclusion, children manifest depression in a similar manner to adults, however, consideration must be taken regarding developmental and age-specific manifestations. Children suffering with depression may not be recognised due to a ‘masking of their depressive symptoms’ and such features being more typical of children than adults.

Sadly, depression alone is usually not enough to warrant special education programming, however if it is accompanied by other disabilities then a child may qualify for such programming.

Below is my corresponding talk:

BLOG 4: EMOTION IN LEARNING: Stress & Examinations

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.


Throughout my schooling I experienced small class sizes: an average class in my primary school taught 13 pupils, at A Level my largest class was five and my smallest had just two, besides the teacher. Coming to university I have met a host of others who had 30+ in their classes and this led me to think how this difference in education may have affected our learning. Subsequently, I pondered over evidence showing that good teachers make a clear difference in student achievement: the problem we face is that we don’t really know what makes a good teacher. This blog will discuss how class-size reduction (CSR) may affect children’s learning and whether you can define a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ teacher.

Research in the state of Indiana found that students in smaller class sizes scored higher on standardised tests than those in larger classes (Bain & Achilles, 1986); it has also been noted that smaller class sizes reduce behavioural issues and the teachers themselves reported more efficiency and productivity within the classroom. But how effective can these smaller class sizes really be? Bain and Achilles established that smaller class sizes require potentially large scale costs for additional classrooms and teachers, which may be why more schools do not take this approach to learning.

PROJECT STAR: Mosteller began a three-phase project, the first entitled Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) in 1985, obtaining results from kindergarten, first, second and third grade. Students and teachers were randomly assigned from approximately 80 schools to three different size groups in order to investigate the effect of class size on learning development:

  1. Small – 13-17
  2. Regular – 22-25 (with paid aide)
  3. Regular – 22-25 (no aide)

Curriculum-based tests were used to assess and compare the performance of the 6,500 students. The results showed a substantial improvement in early learning and cognitive studies in those smaller class sizes. Interestingly, the initial achievement of pupils from minority groups was double that of the majority children, however this levelled out in later years as the majority group caught up.

LASTING BENEFITS STUDY: Four years later Mosteller (1989) began the second phase of the study, observing the progressive performance of the children when they were returned to regular sizes. Students who were originally enrolled in the smaller class sizes continued to perform better than those who had experienced larger classes.

 PROJECT CHALLENGE: The third and final phase of the project funded 17 of the economically poorest school districts to provide smaller class sizes for kindergarten, first, second and third grades. Their mathematics and reading end-of-year standing from within 139 districts was improved from below average to above average.

Given that most teachers are trained to teach in larger classes of children, Stecher et al. (2001) have highlighted the importance of teacher personal development for the successful implementation of CSR.

On the other side of the scale, a meta analysis conducted by Glass and Smith (1979) found that reducing class sizes from 40 pupils to 30, and even to 25 showed little gain in student performance. However reducing it to as little as 15 pupils did yield a higher level of achievement.

It seems clear that class size does affect the performance of students, with smaller class sizes producing higher levels of achievement; however the reduction of such classes must be substantial in order to see such an increase in performance.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD TEACHER: Regarding teacher performance and characteristics, Sanders and colleagues found that the effectiveness of teachers has more of an influence on student achievement than any other schooling factor. The researchers placed the teachers into effectiveness quantiles based on the students’ growth in achievement. Teachers who fell into the first quantile – the least effective teachers – were found to elicit an average of 14 percentile points per year for student gains. The most effective teachers elicited an average 52 percentile points for student gain.

One can see that the teacher you have is incredibly important to your learning; if you have a ‘bad’ teacher for a subject you do not like, then you are less likely to succeed in that subject than if you had a ‘good’ teacher. However, you cannot choose your teacher and while good teaching is important, it is not clear what makes for a good teacher. Most measures used by school systems to screen candidates for teacher quality look at certification, experience and education level, however there is little definitive evidence to suggest that these characteristics are associated with higher student achievement (Goldhaber, 2002). There is some evidence that experienced teachers are more effective with students, (Darling-Hammond, 1999) but the benefits of additional years of experience appear to level off early in a teacher’s career. Measures of teachers’ academic skills, such as their verbal ability (Peterson, Marx & Clark, 1978), may more accurately predict their effectiveness, but there is far less evidence on this issue, and these findings are also not conclusive.

Interestingly, the effects of a teacher’s quality persists for years after the student has a particular teacher which could either be detrimental or beneficial, depending on which teacher you get stuck with!

Bringing these two topics together, one can see that a large class size coupled with a bad teacher can create a negative learning environment, compared with a smaller class size and a good teacher.

Below is my corresponding talk: