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Feel it! Self-regulated learning meets emotions

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

Emotions are everywhere

Just imagine classrooms without emotions! What a dystopia that would be - a classroom of children learning and interacting with each other like machines, but not having fun, being surprised, or experiencing pride. Emotions are, so to speak, the spices of learning (and in life in general, which, as we all know, doesn't end at the classroom door). And even though we feel the need to experience only pleasant emotions as much as possible, there are also unpleasant emotions that direct our lives in a positive way. For instance, fear shows us that we should prepare for something bad in the future, or frustration shows us that we should rethink our goals or break away from them. The special thing about emotions is: they exist all over the world and almost all emotions are perceived and interpreted in the same way by all humans on earth. Emotions are the universal language of humanity - without them, living together is not possible at all.

Emotions at school

What is important for human life on earth is also important at school. So for you, emotions and working with them might be essential for your effective teaching.

You often need to be aware of your students' emotions (and your own, of course) to make learning possible and to support learning processes successfully.

In doing so, you might get most of the information from your students' facial expressions or behavior. Do they smile, avoid eye contact, look angry, stay on task, or give up quickly - these are all important indicators for you assessing your students' emotions. What you cannot see, however, are the thoughts, the motives, and the physical states that accompany your students' feelings. In particular, thoughts and motives must be inferred from expressions, behavior, and context. This requires theoretical knowledge that provides you with a support to anticipate emotions and to deal with them professionally in order to finally use them for learning processes. But don't worry! That's exactly what this blog is for - we will provide you with theoretical knowledge about emotions and how to deal with them.

Control-value theory of emotions

One of the most fundamental and influential theories on emotions in educational contexts is the control-value theory by Reinhard Pekrun (2006) - and of course, it has been empirically supported in thousands of studies.

What does this theory tell us and why is it important to know it as a teacher?

This theory describes and explains the development of students’ emotional experiences in the classroom - and when you know how and why something develops, you might get an idea how to influence this development. Reinhard Pekrun states two things are directly important for students’ emotions in learning and achievement situations:

First, the way how students value a particular domain, their own achievement in this domain or how it is valued by others is one of the most important things for students’ emotions. This is called the “value appraisal”. For example, students may perceive language per se as particularly valuable for their future life (domain value), find achievements or good grades in language particularly important (achievement value), or have the impression that language has a particularly high status in their peer group (social value) and is therefore also important for them individually.

But having the impression something is valuable does not explain a student’s emotion. That’s why the second one comes in: the ”control appraisal”. A student’s control appraisal shows whether he or she can control the situation, for example because of their abilities. Both, value and control appraisal interact and lead to a particular emotion.

An example

For example, when a student values mathematics as important and has the impression that his or her abilities are high, he or she will experience pleasant emotions. But, when he or she evaluates the own abilities as low, unpleasant emotions will arise. Which specific emotion develops depends on the level of value and control appraisal. The most important information for now is:

You can influence students’ value and control appraisals by your teaching style, your teaching methods or the way you form the relationship to your students. The pattern is unique for each emotion (but don’t worry, I will give you this specific information in the future blog posts).

Self-regulated learning and emotions

There is a large theoretical overlap between Zimmerman's self-regulated learning (SRL) model and Pekrun's control-value theory. As with emotions, appraisals play a major role in SRL. Also in SRL, students assess values (e.g. task value) or their own controllability in the form of outcome expectations and adjust their learning style accordingly. Thus, SRL and emotions can theoretically be thought of together. At a certain point, however, the practical importance of combining the two concepts also becomes clear, namely when it comes to the relationship between emotions and achievement:

Of course, pleasant emotions also tend to go hand in hand with good grades (and unpleasant emotions with bad grades). But this connection is not a direct one. SRL takes on a special role for this connection. When pleasant emotions are experienced, students are more likely to study longer and more elaborately. This is what finally leads to good grades. In addition, emotions consistently provide students with information about where they are in their learning process:

  • Shame or fear may indicate that it is important to learn even more or differently;

  • Helplessness or grief may indicate that (social) support is needed to reach a goal;

  • Anger might indicate that something happens in the learning process that is not wanted or goals are not reachable;

  • Joy and pride might indicate that you are on the right track and should continue to learn that way. But they also give you the information that a break in learning is perfectly allowed.

Talking to students about self-regulation in learning processes basically means talking about or asking about their emotions. Students usually like to be talked to about their feelings. You have feelings, they don't require any special effort. But nevertheless, emotions must be handled carefully in some situations. For example, it seems completely unacceptable to ask individual students about their emotional state in front of the whole class.

What comes next?

How to best address each emotion or how to most effectively accompany them in the classroom as a teacher is what my future blog posts will be about. Each blog post of me will be about one emotion…



Pekrun, R. (2006). The Control-Value Theory of Achievement Emotions: Assumptions, Corollaries, and Implications for Educational Research and Practice. Educational Psychology Review, 18, 315-341.

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