The influence of emotional factors on learning

January 27th, 2012

Scores on tests of cognitive abilities, including IQ scores, account for only 45-50% of the variance in academic performance. So half or more of the individual variation in academic skills is accounted for by other factors. Other factors that seem to be important for learning are emotional states, the way one thinks in a particular situation and one’s prior learning experiences within a particular situation or with a particular task.

Affective factors refer to emotional states and those aspects of thinking that are devoted to perceptions or thoughts about yourself and how you think other people perceive you. Affective factors that seem to be important for learning include:

  • How competent you feel at a particular task. For example, if you see yourself as a competent reader you are more likely to approach a reading task with an expectation of success. Low perceptions of competence, in contrast, tend to lead to practise of task avoidance. While these strategies are usually successful in the short-term, because success is not achieved your sense of ‘reading’ competence will remain the same or perhaps worsen.
  • How much you value the task. Effort expended for a particular task is at least partly determined by how highly you value the task or the outcome achieved. It is hard to imagine an Australian Aborigine living in an isolated community expending much energy on learning complicated equations given that Aboriginal languages do not even have words to represent number. In contrast, a child from a family of fishmongers that makes its living by buying and selling may see high value in learning how to quickly add, subtract, and multiply digits.
  • The type of attributions the student makes. Attributions in a psychological sense refer to the way we attribute meaning or cause to a situation. There are typically two types: internal, where we attribute success or failure to ourselves, and external, where we attribute success or failure to something or someone external to ourselves. It is normal for a human to attribute positive outcomes to our own prowess (even if it was just dumb luck) and to attribute failures to external factors (how many times have we heard sports stars complain about the umpiring – a good example of an external attribution).
  • When students make accurate attributions they can see that active learning strategies and effort (i.e., studying or working with a tutor) have positive benefits; which in turn makes the process of expending effort rewarding and likely to occur again. In contrast, students with learning difficulties often make inaccurate attributions. For example, when they have been unable to achieve success on a task that was too hard for them they tend not to consider that it may have been the nature of the task or the person who gave the task that was primarily responsible for the failure. Instead, they are likely to attribute causation to them being “dumb”. Similarly, when they do achieve success, they often do not link that success to their own effort. Instead, they may see it as a result of “luck”.
  • The student’s frame of reference and competence motivation. “Frame of reference” refers to the reference against which the student compares his/her own performance on a task or existing skill level. “Competence motivation” refers to how motivated the student is to developing competence or mastery in a task versus how inclined they are towards peer comparison (“I’m better than you”) or grades (“my grade was bigger than yours”). It is much better for learning and for mental health status to view learning tasks as a challenge and as an opportunity for developing mastery, and to focus more on self-development rather than peer comparisons.

How to help

  1. Help students develop self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses, of tasks that will create difficulty, and a menu of strategies/resources that have worked previously or may be of potential assistance.
  2. Enhance teaching quality
  3. Teach explicitly and teach to mastery
  4. Focus on mastery and individual growth rather than on peer compairosn
  5. Communictae your belief in the stuent’s ability and capacity (even if you don’t believe it). Fake it until they make it!
  6. Enhance accuracy of attributions in combination with skill/strategy training
  7. Provide strategy/skill
  8. Present a task that is challenging but not impossible
  9. Assure child that you believe they have the ability to perform the task
  10. Focus attention on the skills/strategies to be used to solve problem
  11. Provide accurate feedback on why success/failure occurred
  12. Reflect on how behaviour might transfer to other tasks/situations or how it reflects on core beliefs
  13. Focus on the process, not outcomes
  14. Discuss and praise process in the classroom
  15. Use areas of strength to highlight process factors
  16. Transfer to ‘problem’ areas
  17. Revisit attributions and core beliefs
  18. Focus attention on controllable factors
  19. Help the student recognise that some things are not under their control, but that effort, persistence, and strategy use are
  20. Help them see that failures are not due to uncontrollables such as ‘ability’ or ‘teachers’ but to factors within control.
  21. Provide accurate feedback that focuses on the process of learning
  22. Don’t protect them from failure by overlooking errors or by offering rewards or praise for incorrect or inadequate work. Neither is useful for developing accurate self-perceptions and resilience. The task is either too hard (our fault), the student hasn’t been taught a strategy (our fault), or they aren’t using effective behaviours.
  23. Audit tasks and break into subtasks
  24. Minimise negative reinforcement
  25. Help students understand the real purpose of school is to learn how to learn.
  26. Recognise that avoidance is compensatory rather than a sign of laziness or lack of motivation. Avoidance is not a sign that students need to be “more motivated” (as if they can pull in and fill up their petrol tank) but a sign that they lack skills, strategies, and a sense of competence and control.
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