Are students emotionally ready to learn? ACER’s Research Conference 2013

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Sunday, 4 Aug 2013

4 August 2013:  Our developing understanding of how the brain learns suggests students’ emotional states can affect their predisposition to learn, delegates will hear at the annual research conference of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), How the Brain Learns: What lessons are there for teaching?

Professor John Hattie from the University of Melbourne will tell delegates at Research Conference 2013 that the avoidance of learning can be a rational decision made due to lack of confidence.

“To choose not to learn something can be seen as rationally prudent, while choosing to learn can be risky – and taking the risky choice depends on high levels of confidence,” said Professor Hattie. “We need a certain amount of confidence that we can learn before we are prepared to exert energy on learning. This is why it’s important to identify success criteria that show students what success looks like and the steps required to attain success, and to provide feedback addressing the question, ‘Where to next?’”

Also addressing students’ readiness to learn, Dr Dan White, Executive Director of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Sydney, will explain research that shows why, when faced with emotional stress, the brain focuses on self-protection in preference to learning, which can result in students misbehaving or withdrawing from learning.

“While most teachers are aware of how the emotional state of a student can have a positive or negative influence on learning, brain-based learning theory both validates and explains this insight,” he said.

“Teachers can structure tasks in a manner that allows the more emotionally vulnerable students to be able to make a start, whilst allowing the more secure and capable learners the flexibility and freedom to pursue the upper limits of learning.”

In another presentation, ACER Research Fellow Dr Sarah Buckley will consider the issue of mathematics anxiety and its impact on children’s learning.

“A significant barrier to learning in the mathematics classroom is anxiety. Maths anxiety predisposes students to be hyper-sensitive to mathematical stimuli, to experience fear almost automatically after they encounter mathematics and to be less capable of drawing on cognitive strategies to control this fear,” Dr Buckley said.

The immediate impact of maths anxiety is that it impairs performance. The long-term implication is that students will learn to avoid situations and career pathways that involve mathematics. Research suggests that the development of maths anxiety is influenced by factors students bring to the classroom and by environmental factors like teachers and peers.

“Classroom culture has the potential to influence the development of mathematics anxiety, and addressing gender stereotypes and negative peer culture could improve students’ attitude and achievement in mathematics,” Dr Buckley said.

Research Conference 2013 takes place in Melbourne from 4 to 6 August.

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