Traditionally, educational psychology, and education research more generally, have focused on cognitive learning and the cognitive outcomes of schooling. Affective factors, such as students’ emotions at school, were neglected for a long time, with one single major exception: studies on test anxiety. Research on test anxiety started in the 1930s (e.g., Brown, 1938) and began to flourish in the early 1950s, after Mandler and Sarason (1952) had published their seminal article on the impact of anxiety on learning. In addition, emotions were mentioned in the literature on achievement motivation. On a theoretical level, hope, fear, pride, and shame related to success and failure were thought to be central to the instigation of achievement strivings (see Heckhausen, 1991). However, in empirical studies, emotions were conceptualised as components of achievement motives rather being studied as phenomena in their own right.
The growth of research on test anxiety was driven by practical needs to deal with the affective consequences of wide-spread mass testing of students introduced in the decades before and after World War II, and was enabled by development of both theories and measures.
Specifically, there was an increasing sophistication in the conceptualisation of the construct and in the development of related self-report scales. In the 1950s, test anxiety was conceived as a unidimensional variable, but later researchers recognised that it contained different components.
Liebert and Morris (1967) proposed a two-dimensional conception distinguishing between affective components (‘emotionality’) and cognitive components (‘worry’) of the test anxiety experience, and in subsequent years researchers developed the multidimensional conceptions that shape our current views of the construct. An early example is Sarason’s (1984) proposal that test anxiety should be conceptualised as comprising four dimensions, including one affective dimension (‘tension’), two cognitive dimensions (‘worry’; ‘task-irrelevant thinking’), and one physiological dimension (‘bodily reactions’).
Theories of test anxiety and achievement proposed that the worries about possible failure that are part of test anxiety reduce cognitive resources and attention available to perform cognitive tasks, such that performance on complex and difficult tasks requiring such resources is reduced (Wine, 1971; Eysenck, 1997). Empirical research has largely confirmed this proposition. Due to the effects of anxiety on task performance, test anxiety and related constructs (such as math anxiety) have been shown to also correlate negatively with students’ academic performance. Since the inception of test anxiety research, more than 1,000 studies have confirmed negative links between students’ achievement anxiety and their academic attainment (for meta-analytic evidence, see Hembree, 1988; Zhang et al., 2019).
Starting in the late 1960s, the perspective on emotions at school was broadened by attributional research examining the link between students’ causal attributions of success and failure and the emotions generated by these achievement outcomes. Specifically, Weiner (1985) posited that perceptions of the location (internal vs. external), controllability, and temporal stability of the causes of success and failure determine the nature of affective responses to these outcomes. For example, if students perceive success as being caused by their ability and effort, then they feel proud of their achievement. Conversely, if failure is thought to be due to lack of ability, shame follows, and if it is due to lack of effort, guilt may be experienced. These propositions have also received substantial support in empirical studies.
Test anxiety studies and attributional research were focused on emotions related to the outcomes of achievement activities (i.e., success and failure). In an attempt to further enlarge the perspective and consider the full range of emotions occurring in achievement settings, Pekrun et al. (2002) proposed that emotions related to achievement activities themselves, such as students’ enjoyment or boredom during learning, are no less important for human achievement strivings. More generally, this proposal was part of a broader development in research on emotions in achievement settings (education, the workplace, sports, etc.) that has been called an affective turn in applied disciplines of psychology (e.g., Barsade et al., 2003), including educational psychology, and in related fields such as management and sports sciences. Researchers started to recognise that emotions are not merely epiphenomena of achievement that lack instrumental relevance, but that they are critically important for cognitive performance, academic attainment, career trajectories, and psychological health as well as institutional and national productivity.
As a result, there has been an exponential growth of studies investigating students’ and teachers’ emotions during the past twenty years. Research on emotions has become a hot topic in educational psychology. For example, in a recent meta-analysis of students’ enjoyment, boredom, anger, and frustration during learning, Camacho-Morles et al. (2020) reported on fewer than ten empirical studies on the relations between these emotions and students’ achievement that were conducted prior to 2000. In contrast, since then, several thousands of articles on students’ and teachers’ emotions have been published, including not only anxiety studies but also large numbers of investigations on other emotions (see Camacho-Morles et al., 2020; Loderer et al., 2020; Pekrun & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2014; Tze et al., 2016).