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Bliss Before Bust

A University of Freiburg study shows positive emotions can impede learning success – something students should take into account when they next hit the books.

Freiburg, Sep 18, 2018

Bliss Before Bust

Photo: Priscilla du Preez/Unsplash

Most people are able to escape or ignore distractions like noise from a communal kitchen when they’re studying. But some emotional states – be it happy, stressed, or depressed – simply aren’t that easy to switch off. Two University of Freiburg researchers are investigating the influence emotions have on learning success and how people assess the knowledge they have gained while studying. Sarah Schwarzkopf spoke to Anja Prinz and Prof. Dr. Jörg Wittwer of the Department of Educational Sciences about their current research project.

A good mood when studying can lead you to overestimate yourself: Learners rely on positive emotions rather than critically questioning whether they’ve actually understood the material they’ve read. Photo: Priscilla du Preez/Unsplash

Ms. Prinz, you describe your research project in a recently published article entitled “Happy, but overconfident.” What exactly, were you examining?

Anja Prinz: We’re looking at self-regulation. We’re interested in how well learners can assess their own knowledge or their understanding of texts – and what influence that has on further learning. We looked at how much emotions influence self-assessment during learning from reading materials. We achieved this by producing a range of moods in the learners. They would listen to a positive, neutral, or negative piece of music and think of a life experience that made them feel the corresponding emotion. Afterwards, they had to read a text on biology, assess the knowledge they gained, and take a comprehension test.

What were the results?

Anja Prinz: We’ve discovered that positive emotions worsen the learners’ processing of texts – while simultaneously making them more likely to overestimate their success. That means they fail to recognize that they have understood little of the material. By contrast, learners with negative or neutral emotions assess themselves relatively accurately.

After the researchers induced different moods in the text subjects, the learners had to read a text, assess their understanding of it, and take a comprehension test. Photo: Jessica Castro/Unsplash

How can that be explained?

Prinz: Positive emotions can lead to more superficial cognitive processing. As a result, learners have a poorer understanding of the text and rely on these positive emotions when making a heuristic assessment.

Jörg Wittwer: Evolutionary theory can be used to explain that. If you’re feeling good, then you don’t have to analyze the current situation because you don’t want to change anything about it. But if you’re feeling bad, it helps to ask why that is. As a result, negative emotions promote analytical thinking. Emotion as a prompt isn’t relied on as extensively as it would in the case of a positive mood. Instead, the evaluation of exactly what has been understood is more critical.

Why are you interested in self-assessment?

Jörg Wittwer: It’s part of the learning process. Understanding a text involves constant monitoring of what you’ve understood from it. If you assess yourself precisely and know that you haven’t understood it, you go back and reread the relevant sections. If you’re overestimating yourself, you don’t reread. Instead, you believe you’ve grasped it all. The critical point here is deciding to continue to study the material based on the foundation of estimated comprehension and knowledge. Before our project, the influence of emotions on this type of self-assessment had barely been investigated.

In the study, you triggered emotions artificially. Can these be compared to genuine emotions?

Jörg Wittwer: Because there haven’t been many studies on this topic, we first tried to find out how much a mood influences self-assessment of text comprehension under standardized conditions. That’s why we induced the emotions in an artificial situation in the laboratory. At the moment, we’re also investigating how comparable these are with emotions that are naturally present and how these influence text comprehension and self-assessment.

Anja Prinz: In the ongoing study, of course we ask about the feelings subjects have as they study and are being tested. We’ve found that the greater the negative emotions – such as fear, boredom, or hopelessness – learners have about the reading material, the more likely they are to underestimate their comprehension.

Jörg Wittwer and Anja Prinz are among the first researchers to look at the influence emotions have on self-assessment. Photo: Patrick Seeger

That means that negative emotions are to some degree good, but also bad for learning success?

Jörg Wittwer: Precisely. You can’t simply make a sweeping statement that positive emotions are always bad or negative emotions are always good for learning. It’s very dependent on the context and which area of learning you are examining. A major question in emotion research is under which conditions are positive emotions good and under which conditions are they not. You also have to distinguish between emotions as a characteristic, say for example if a person is melancholy in the morning, and emotions as a state, which is what we’ve looked at. So a person can have a tendency towards melancholy, but can nevertheless be exceptionally happy in a certain situation. The influences of an emotion as a characteristic or as a state can vary greatly.

What can students take with them from your project results when they next sit down to study?

Jörg Wittwer: Some people imagine that when you’re learning, you can’t have any emotion at all. You have to be very neutral and focused. If positive emotions are related to the study material, then that’s not bad at all. But if you’re in a good mood that doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re learning, that can lead to overestimation. That’s of interest to teachers as well. When we try to get students into a good mood using something that has nothing to do with the subject, according to our study results, we could be doing more harm than good.

Anja Prinz: An implication of this study is, above all, that you should pay attention to your emotions, but do not rely on them when you’re evaluating yourself. If you’re in a good mood or the weather is especially good, that doesn’t automatically mean that you've understood something. You should check your understanding using the study text itself rather than letting yourself be misled by your own emotions.


To read the study