When you see their eyes light up

11 Dec 2018

Educational psychologist Anne Frenzel studies the role of emotions in learning, and her recent research calls into question the validity of a widely held model of social interactions in the classroom.

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Professor Anne Frenzel rarely runs out of things to talk about. That’s not just an expression of her personality and her broad range of knowledge; it is also a reflection of her research interest. As an educational psychologist, her research focuses on an area in which everyone is interested, and on which virtually everyone has fervently held views – the standard of teaching in schools. Specifically, she studies the role of emotions in learning, and her results cast doubt on many widely accepted assumptions.

Parents are very quick to recommend to teachers that they only have to motivate their students properly to turn learning into a pleasure. Frenzel’s work demonstrates that this is a very one-sided description of the learning process. In a recent longitudinal study, she confirmed that the joy of learning is infectious – but she also demonstrated that this not only applies to the students on the receiving end, it also holds for teachers. There are two sides to this equation, and both have an impact on the result.

“This is a very exciting finding, because it represents a breakthrough in educational research. The conventional view has always been that the teacher’s influence on the student is paramount. But this notion is in part a consequence of social expectations. Teachers are looked upon as communicators of knowledge. But this idea ignores the fact that a classroom is a space in which social interactions take place, and these interactions involve everyone in the room,” Frenzel points out. Teaching and learning is a two-way process, not the one-way street it is usually thought to be. It works both ways, and both sides have a part to play.

In her study, Frenzel observed the interactions between 70 classes and their teachers over the course of the first 6 months of the schoolyear. The more enthusiasm the teachers experienced and expressed during the first few weeks, the more involved and attentive the students were at the end of the term. Conversely, the teachers experienced greater enjoyment and fulfilment in classes in which the students themselves responded positively from early on. “The results reveal a clear trend: Teachers’ and students’ experiences and behaviors converge, and each side stimulates the other.”

This result presents a challenge to researchers who seek to quantify degrees of success in education in schools. “It is not generally appreciated that working with a highly motivated group alters the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship,” says Frenzel. “That’s one reason why models based on the notion of accountability, which have become common in the US, are misleading,” she adds. These models try to measure the learning value added by each individual teacher. “So, if a student turns out to know more, it is automatically assumed that this is solely attributable to the teacher. In my view, this is purely a matter of correlation, not causation. If one is teaching a group of students who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, it is much easier to produce better results.”

Reading emotions in the face Anne Frenzel uses a wide spectrum of methods in her research. For instance, she works with ‘lesson diaries’ in which teachers describe their feelings experienced in class immediately after the conclusion of a lesson. These experiences are predominantly positive. – This may come as a surprise to many who are not professional teachers. But it doesn’t surprise Frenzel. “It may be fascinating to focus on the dark side,” she says, “but, as someone who studies emotions and their significance, I am well aware that psychologically healthy and well-balanced individuals are likely to experience far more phases dominated by positive rather than negative feelings. It would be awful if that were not the case.”

In an ongoing study, Frenzel uses software to analyze the emotional states of both students and teachers on the basis of facial expressions. The analysis of the data is carried out using algorithms based on machine learning. This approach was chosen not only for data protection reasons, but also because it is the only practical way to handle the vast amount of data involved.

Nevertheless, Frenzel has found that teachers and classes are quite willing to take part in the studies that she designs. They show a great deal of interest in the results of her research, and this is clearly due to the nature of her primary topic. “One of the most pressing problems for teachers is how to motivate their students. Teachers worry about how captivate the class, how they can best persuade the class to play their part, to make the journey with them.”

Bridging the gap between research and practice Anne Frenzel directs the Master’s Program Psychology in the Learning Sciences at LMU, and is also a member of the Executive Board of the Munich Center of the Learning Sciences. According to a recent analysis published in the journal Educational Psychology Review, she is one of the ten most productive female researchers in her field worldwide, in terms of the number of publications published in top-ranking journals in that field. “The tension between highly ranked research contributions and their practical implications is one of the things that concerns me personally. How can I carry out first-rate research that is recognized as such by the scientific community – which requires me to formulate precise, detailed and highly abstract questions that must be answered using the most appropriate and economical methodology – and then take this little insight out into the wider world where a multitude of factors work together and all at once?,” she muses.

Thanks to her basic approach, which regards the communicative relationship between teachers and their students as a reciprocal one, she succeeds in reconciling the demands just mentioned. “This study closes a gap,” she says, “and one can draw a number of practical conclusions from the results.” And the major conclusion is this: “I believe that teachers should be conscious of the fact that their students have at least as much influence on them as they have on their classes. So the best that a teacher can do is to make every effort to get off on the right foot, and to trigger a positive reaction on the part of their class.”

So Frenzel advises teachers to keep an eye on their own emotions. “Of course, they must do the teaching,” she says. “But teachers are also entitled to adapt how they go about this task in the interest of their own wellbeing. I tell them: Do it for you. Because once you feel better as a teacher, you also feel more efficacious about really reaching your students.” Once the spark jumps over and the students’ eyes light up, teachers see the return and then, says Frenzel, ”teaching starts to be fun.”

The power of emotion Listening to Anne Frenzel, it soon becomes clear that emotions play a larger role in successful communication in the classroom than has so far been acknowledged. “Of course, the basic point of schooling is to teach children things they need to know. But the context of teaching and learning is not only characterized by the cognitive learning gains, but also by how it feels to comprehend.”

In light of the growing emphasis on the concept of life-long learning, it would undoubtedly be worthwhile to pay greater attention to the role played by the emotions in learning: “In the end, it is more important that students can say ‘Working through Pythagoras’ Theorem was OK’ than that they can state the theorem itself. The primary task of every school is to instill in students a basic willingness to engage with challenging topics. And this is more likely to be the case, if I already know something about the topic. That is why the acquisition of knowledge is essential. However, the feeling that one can not yet do something needs be seen in a less negative light. It should act as an impetus – I can learn this.”

For more information on Anne Frenzel’s work, see: “Fear of exams can be overcome”

Publication Emotion Transmission in the Classroom Revisited: A Reciprocal Effects Model of Teaser and Student Enjoyment.Journal of Educational Psychology 2017

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