Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Joy and learning

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Joy and learning:
What effect does joy have on learning?


Figure 1. The effects of joy on learning appear to be beneficial not only for one's personal development but also for one's collaborative membership with others.

Joy is a basic emotion that elicits positive behaviours and feelings that are fundamental to an individual's subjective well-being. In conjunction with learning, joy can have widespread benefits across all domains of thought, including that of active information processing, deep processing and conceptual understanding (high-quality learning). The joy of learning involves individuals engaging with the subject material and identifying aspects of it that are of interest to them. It is particularly pertinent in online learning classrooms with the introduction of digital videos and multimedia. This chapter will examine the effects that joy has on learning and discuss relevant implications. Applications are also discussed with respect to the theoretical diversity. Figure 1 illustrates the effects of joy and how it assists with personal growth and development.


According to Huang (2011), mastery goals and positive achievement emotions, including joy, were correlated with each other. Huang (2011) reported that 86 of the 93 [what?] independent samples consisted of both genders, with as many as 70 samples taken from USA (Huang, 2011). The following [what?] correlations are summarised in Table 1. These findings illustrate the extent to which information can be internalized by individuals across different contexts[vague][explain?].

Table 1. Correlations of achievement goals for positive emotions, adapted from Huang (2011)

Positive Emotions
Model Aspect K Mean
2-factor achievement goal model Mastery goal 25 0.41
Performance goal 25 0.06
3-factor achievement goal model Mastery goal 23 0.48
Performance approach goal 23 0.14

Performance avoidance goal 23 -0.10
4-factor achievement goal model Mastery approach goal 8 0.42
Mastery avoidance goal 8 0.05
Performance approach goal 8 0.14
Performance avoidance goal 8 -0.05

Self-determination theory[edit]

Self-determination theory asserts that individuals can motivate themselves to regulate their own actions (Deci, & Ryan, 1991, cited in Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). Learning is optimised by an individual's capacity to understand concepts using flexible constructs and by satisfying one's psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness (Deci et al., 1991). These constructs connect learners, giving them a sense of belonging (Niemiec, & Ryan, 2009). Researchers suggest that individuals can create these conditions by enriching their learning experiences, leading to autonomy (Reeve, & Tseng, 2011).

Individuals are also motivated to see themselves as fit, leading to competence (Tong et al., 2009). Individuals engage with their past experiences as a means of communicating with others (Koseoglu, & Doering 2011). Tong et al. (2009) asserts that autonomy and competence are two psychological needs that reinforce that individuals are effective in their pursuit of goals as a means towards achieving mastery.

However, individuals also experience a range of emotions, such as joy, which helps them to develop their sense of belonging with their environment, referred to as relatedness (Koseoglu, & Doering, 2011). Together, these three needs (Figure 2) provide strategies to help individuals control their choices and to inform their decision-making (Tong et al., 2009). Thus, this helps to improve lives while considering one's personal and another individual’s interests (Koseoglu, & Doering 2011).

Figure 2. The three psychological needs as highlighted in self-determination theory

Broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions[edit]

The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions views positive emotions, such as joy, as central in encouraging one to think and act responsibly (Schutte, 2014). The capacity to react to changes in the environment can help to broaden one's cognitive and behavioural mindset (Reschly, Huebner, Appleton, & Antaramian, 2008). For example, individuals may demonstrate problem solving skills while managing their personal conflicts, or find others to receive additional social support. Positive emotions, therefore, allow individuals to feel greater life satisfaction (Schutte, 2014).

Reschly et al. (2008) argue that educational contexts use positive emotions to increase one's capacity to engage in meaningful learning. This facilitates peer and other significant relationships, including students, family members and teachers (Reschly et al., 2008). Finally, it builds resilience within individuals across various settings, including the workplace (Reschly et al., 2008). It achieves this by using positive emotions to guide one's attention towards controlling their thoughts and subsequent actions (Fredrickson, & Branigan, 2005).

Figure 3. Competence in one's life includes thinking about pathways, engaging in environmental mastery, having a purpose in life, and developing ego-resilience (Fredrickson et al., 2008)

Positive emotions, including joy, correlate with students' academic self-efficacy, interest, effort and overall achievement (Pekrun et al., 2004, cited in Valiente, Swanson, & Eisenberg, 2012). This follows the assumption that positive emotions facilitate approach-related activities, which benefit motivated individuals (Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin, 2000; Rothbart & Bates, 2006, cited in Valiente et al., 2012). Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, and Finkel (2008) suggest that increases in positive emotions may have widespread effects on cognitive processing (Figure 3). Valiente et al. (2012) believes that this allows students to build enduring friendships with others, allowing them to receive and provide appropriate social and academic support.

Academic self-efficacy[edit]

Individuals can also achieve specific academic goals, more commonly referred to as academic self-efficacy, and assume control over the outcomes they create for themselves (Bandura, 1986, 1997, cited in Putwain, Sander, & Larkin, 2013). This allows individuals to accept challenges and receive appraisals for their actions (Putwain et al., 2013). Additionally, Putwain et al. (2013) believes that this also generates positive feelings, and can be used to predict one’s educational success.

Academic self-efficacy can also sustain one's pursuit of their goals with others in a positive and supportive environment (Caprara, Steca, Gerbino, Paciello, & Vecchio, 2006). This allows individuals to observe others to demonstrate, directly and indirectly, their actions that help them to communicate with their peers and parents (Caprara et al., 2006). Caprara et al. (2006) argues that this also satisfies the need to engage in interpersonal relationships, to form these rich and positive emotional experiences.


Although self-determination theory presents possible explanations of how individuals may experience joy in learning, the limitations concerning the effects of joy on learning is not well understood (Tong et al., 2009). For instance, the theory inaccurately predicts the role of individuals within academic settings, especially those who receive information passively and follow instructions set by the instructors (Reeve, & Tseng, 2011). As a result, effective strategies may be ignored and have adverse consequences on one's learning (Deci et al., 1991; Niemiec, & Ryan, 2009).

In addition, learners primarily engage with familiar practices; that is, they are more likely to find greater value in activities that they can fully understand and master (Niemiec, & Ryan, 2009). Furthermore, Niemiec & Ryan (2009) suggest that if an activity is not familiar to learners, often instruction, in the form of explanations, are required to explain why an activity is meaningful.

Research using the broaden-and-build theory is limited as no broadening measures have been identified that is valid, reliable or used frequently across studies (Fredrickson et al., 2008). This means that while the link between positive emotions and learning is not yet clear, some researchers are using different methods to identify specific mechanisms that may help to inform the theory of how these associations may be maintained (Valiente et al., 2012). Differences may also exist within individual differences, particularly within personality (Reschly et al., 2008).

The use of self-reporting, such as questionnaires, to explore academic self-efficacy can lead to self-presentation bias (Putwain et al., 2013; Caprara et al., 2006). Studies on academic self-efficacy have not yet successfully clarified the link between academic and behavioural engagement and the role of joy on learning (Reschly et al., 2008). These findings are inaccurate simply because the effects for joy cannot be generalised across individuals across all types of situations (Putwain et al., 2013).

The theories recognise that individuals seek personal meaning for themselves by interacting and engaging with situations that are familiar with respect to their own capabilities (Koseoglu, & Doering, 2011). Thus, studies that include more familiar objects that engage learners could help clarify the extent to which they feel joy (Schutte, 2014). However, monitoring this is difficult; not all learners are stimulated by these interventions and may instead experience negative emotions, such as stress (Fredrickson et al., 2008).

Application 1: Active Information Processing[edit]

Case Study: Can digital videos (DVs) support students’ learning experiences? (Hakkarainen, Saarelainen, & Ruokamo, 2007)

The University of Lapland studied Finnish students' learning experiences using digital videos (DVs) in a Network Management course. This course was available for students face-to-face (2004) and online (2005). Both courses helped to enhance students' positive emotional involvement. 60% of respondents, from a sample of 30 (2005), agreed or moderately agreed that it supported their learning, while 81% wrote that it brought value to the learning process. Consequently, DVs helped to enhance the learners' interest, and engagement with the course.

Joy can enable active information processing within individuals who use different learning strategies to improve their overall performances (Bruinsma, 2004). In addition to joy, Bruinisma (2004) discusses aspects of expectancy and achievement, and the effects it has on learners who are trained as active information seekers. In particular, these learners focus on increasing their use of learning strategies while engaging in academic self-efficacy (Bruinisma, 2004).

The effect of positive words on cognition raises the assumption that positive information, on average, shares similarity with other words due to the similarity in its cognitive interpretations and messages (Unkelbach, Fiedler, Bayer, Stegmüller, & Danner, 2008). Unkelbach et al. (2008) believes that the environmental influences on cognition are responsible for creating this effect on learners. Other researchers suggest that our enduring personal resources enable us to perceive these effects (Strauss, & Allen, 2006)

Nevertheless, studies have examined the use of positive words and its effects on information processing. The efficiency of these words are reflected within participants who experience moments of positive affect (Strauss, & Allen, 2006). Table 2 provides a list of words used in a study to examine this phenomenon, and has categorised it by its intensity (Strauss, & Allen, 2006).

Table 2. A list of positive words associated with the intensity type, taken from Strauss, and Allen (2006)

Intensity Type Examples of Words associated with Type
Low Angel












High Glory






The association of positive words has clear implications for the effects that joy may have on learning. Litman (2005) explains that learners who are stimulated by positive emotions will read more information from the relevant literature so as to acquire further knowledge of their subject matter. As shown also with the [which?] case study, information seeking involves learners developing interests that will lead to anticipated enjoyment (Litman, 2005).

Application 2: Deep Processing[edit]

Learners engage in deep processing by challenging the authenticity of new information (Coutinho, & Neuman, 2008). However, they achieve this by pursuing comprehension by focusing on the content of the information presented (Coutinho, & Neuman, 2008). This allows for connections to be formed between new information and old information and relate to the storage of memories (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik and Tulving, 1975, cited in Coutinho, & Neuman, 2008).

Figure 4. Learners taking initiative to engage in independent study

Learners engaged in deep processing can manage their existing skills as well as improve on them (Burleson, 2005). These learners, too, are also likely to have mastery-approach goals, which enable them to maximise their learning capabilities (Coutinho, & Neuman, 2008). Figure 4 illustrates that learning is thought to facilitate joy, and allows individuals to take initiative of their own knowledge seeking behaviours (Burleson, 2005).

A study examined the association of round shapes with face-like features and warm colours with that of positive emotions (Plass, Heidig, Hayward, Homer, & Um, 2014). Subsequent results found that an improvement in the comprehension of participants was facilitated by the pairing (Plass et al., 2014). Plass et al. (2014) also reported that the participants felt "inspired" and "interested" after being shown a presentation of the two design elements. An example that combines these two design elements is stickers.

The effective structuring of online learning environments can engage learners emotionally to increase their knowledge in an area that they enjoy (Artino, & Jones, 2012). Artino, and Jones (2012) associate enjoyment with higher levels of elaboration and metacognition. These aspects can then either positively or negatively influence the individuals' self-efficacy beliefs (Bandura, 1997, cited in Artino, & Jones, 2012).

Application 3: Conceptual Understanding[edit]

Conceptual learning recognises the effect of joy on effort and focuses on the merging of actions and the learner's awareness of their current situation (Chen, & McGrath, 2003). This merging forms "clusters" whereby students' prior learning is associated with their understanding of the subject matter (Chen, & McGrath, 2003). This can also be represented using tree structures (Figure 5) to illustrate the hierarchical depth of knowledge (Chen, & McGrath, 2003).

Figure 5. Tree structures represent the hierarchical depth of knowledge

Conceptual understanding requires learners to consider the history of their own thoughts and feelings as they engage with their learning (Ainley, & Ainley, 2011). Ainley, and Ainley (2011) state that joy and interest can enable learners to continue their engagement with their topic of interest. This is able to be achieved through elaborate and creative activities that facilitate joy in conjunction with, or without, other emotions (Ainley, & Ainley, 2011).

According to Zeivots (2016), six themes emerge from adult learners who experience joy. These include facing the unknown, having first-time experiences, unexpected discoveries, being on journeys, sensing changes, and engaging in meaningful learning (Zeivots, 2016). These themes emphasise that an individual's experience is unique to themselves, and that learning will take place once these conditions have been satisfied (Zeivots, 2016).


Select one option below that is most associated with the following theme-based scenarios.

1 A tourist experiences joy and walks around their destination without sufficient information to help themselves to navigate around the area.

Meaningful learning
Being on journeys
Facing the unknown
Sensing changes
First-time experiences

2 An elderly couple attempts ballroom dancing together without any prior exposure to the activity.

Facing the unknown
Being on journeys
Meaningful learning
Unexpected discoveries
First-time experiences

3 A business owner, upon reflecting on their business marketing strategies, is positively surprised after being told of their consumers’ likes and dislikes of their strategies.

Sensing changes
Facing the unknown
Unexpected discoveries
Meaningful learning
First-time experiences

4 A dancer enjoys taking time out of her day to learn a new language, for example, Chinese.

Being on journeys
Meaningful learning
First-time experiences
Unexpected discoveries
Sensing changes

5 A pastor appreciates sign language and uses that in their future sermons to physically communicate abstract ideas.

Unexpected discoveries
Meaningful learning
Being on journeys
Sensing changes
First-time experiences

6 A student is exhilarated after reading a self-help book and the impact it has on their personal lifestyle.

Meaningful learning
Facing the unknown
Sensing changes
Unexpected discoveries
Being on journeys

The implications of conceptual learning advocate the need for more diverse and appropriate teaching methods and materials in order to increase students' willingness to learn (Tatar, Akpınar, & Feyzioğlu, 2013). Although technology itself does not improve student learning, educational software may allow learners to learn concepts more comprehensively (Tatar et al., 2013). Furthermore, it may also help develop positive affective skills relevant to personal development and growth (Tatar et al., 2013).


Future research should consider interviewing more students on the level of their cognitive and affective skills (Tatar, Akpınar, & Feyzioğlu, 2013). This includes examining some specific achievement emotions that may influence educational performance outcomes (Artino, & Jones, 2012). Additional studies could use a range of measures to clarify the correlation between the automatic processing of positive information and the learners' emotional experiences (Strauss, & Allen, 2006).

Figure 6. Emotional highs can help identify methods in managing positive emotional experiences

The conditions for learning must also be considered as they can have significant effects on learners' thoughts, feelings, and actions, particularly in online learning environments (Bernard et al., 2004, cited in Artino, & Jones, 2012). Further research could evaluate the conditions that will potentially inhibit learners' performance or facilitate optimal learning (Chen, & McGrath, 2003). Figure 6 shows that the triggers of emotional highs can help identify methods to deal with positive emotional experiences (Zeivots, 2016).

The applications suggest that technology will help learners to feel more engaged with their learning provided a stronger understanding for the specific psychological mechanisms are identified (Burleson, 2005). The online learning environment allows learners to view their digital materials confidently, with interest, focus and attention (Ainley, & Ainley, 2011; Plass et al., 2014). Furthermore, this reinforces the need for self-efficacy as it has wide implications across various domains of learning (Coutinho, & Neuman, 2008).

Learners who experience joy and interest show a lasting desire to engage in learning. Joy, like many other positive emotions, is responsive to changes, particularly in the way that connections are formed between old and new information. It is important to understand that optimal learning conditions are central to the flexible use of knowledge and that the mind adjusts, but also creates new information for us to enjoy fully.

See also[edit]


Ainley, M., & Ainley, J. (2011). Student engagement with science in early adolescence: The contribution of enjoyment to students’ continuing interest in learning about science. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36, 4-12.

Artino, A. R., & Jones, K. D. (2012). Exploring the complex relations between achievement emotions and self-regulated learning behaviors in online learning. The Internet and Higher Education, 15, 170-175.

Bruinsma, M. (2004). Motivation, cognitive processing and achievement in higher education. Learning and instruction, 14, 549-568.

Burleson, W. (2005). Developing creativity, motivation, and self-actualization with learning systems. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 63, 436-451.

Caprara, G. V., Steca, P., Gerbino, M., Paciello, M., & Vecchio, G. M. (2006). Looking for adolescents' well-being: Self-efficacy beliefs as determinants of positive thinking and happiness. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 15, 30-43.

Chen, P., & McGrath, D. (2003). Moments of joy: Student engagement and conceptual learning in the design of hypermedia documents. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 35, 402-422.

Coutinho, S. A., & Neuman, G. (2008). A model of metacognition, achievement goal orientation, learning style and self-efficacy. Learning Environments Research, 11, 131-151.

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational psychologist, 26, 325-346.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought‐action repertoires. Cognition & emotion, 19, 313-332.

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95, 1045.

Hakkarainen, P., Saarelainen, T., & Ruokamo, H. (2007). Towards meaningful learning through digital video supported, case based teaching. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 23.

Huang, C. (2011). Achievement goals and achievement emotions: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 23, 359.

Koseoglu, S., & Doering, A. (2011). Understanding complex ecologies: an investigation of student experiences in adventure learning programs. Distance Education, 32, 339-355.

Litman, J. (2005). Curiosity and the pleasures of learning: Wanting and liking new information. Cognition & emotion, 19, 793-814.

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. School Field, 7, 133-144.

Plass, J. L., Heidig, S., Hayward, E. O., Homer, B. D., & Um, E. (2014). Emotional design in multimedia learning: Effects of shape and color on affect and learning. Learning and Instruction, 29, 128-140.

Putwain, D., Sander, P., & Larkin, D. (2013). Academic self‐efficacy in study‐related skills and behaviours: Relations with learning‐related emotions and academic success. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 633-650.

Reeve, J., & Tseng, C. M. (2011). Agency as a fourth aspect of students’ engagement during learning activities. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36, 257-267.

Reschly, A. L., Huebner, E. S., Appleton, J. J., & Antaramian, S. (2008). Engagement as flourishing: The contribution of positive emotions and coping to adolescents' engagement at school and with learning. Psychology in the Schools, 45, 419-431.

Schutte, N. S. (2014). The broaden and build process: Positive affect, ratio of positive to negative affect and general self-efficacy. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9, 66-74.

Strauss, G. P., & Allen, D. N. (2006). The experience of positive emotion is associated with the automatic processing of positive emotional words. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 150-159.

Tatar, N., Akpınar, E., & Feyzioğlu, E. Y. (2013). The effect of computer-assisted learning integrated with metacognitive prompts on students’ affective skills. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 22, 764-779.

Tong, E. M., Bishop, G. D., Enkelmann, H. C., Diong, S. M., Why, Y. P., Khader, M., & Ang, J. (2009). Emotion and appraisal profiles of the needs for competence and relatedness. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 31, 218-225.

Unkelbach, C., Fiedler, K., Bayer, M., Stegmüller, M., & Danner, D. (2008). Why positive information is processed faster: the density hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95, 36.

Valiente, C., Swanson, J., & Eisenberg, N. (2012). Linking students’ emotions and academic achievement: When and why emotions matter. Child development perspectives, 6, 129-135.

Zeivots, S. (2016). Emotional highs in adult experiential learning. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 56, 353.

External links[edit]