Post by Lars-Erik Malmberg (University of Oxford) & Rob Klassen (University of York)

Have you as a student or research participant ever completed a questionnaire in which you were asked questions like “Do you pay attention in class?” with response options ranging from Strongly Disagree, to Strongly Agree? Did this make you think, “hmm, it’s hard to say: sometime I do, sometimes I don’t?” One limitation of research in educational psychology is that it paints too broad a picture about important phenomena that occur during learning and it misses important changes over time. We know intuitively that responses to questions about attention, motivation, and emotions depend on the situation in which the response is given (Turner & Nolen, 2015). Many psycho-educational factors that are important in education fluctuate over the course of a year, day, or even a particular lesson.

A more specific alternative to this general question would be a daily diary in which the question “Did you pay attention today?” was offered with response options from Not at all to Very much. With day-to-day responses like this we might learn that attention was higher on Wednesday than on Friday. But even a daily diary might not capture the dynamic nature of attention in class. An even more frequent questionnaire, say once a lesson, could reveal that attention is higher during maths than geography, higher with Mrs. Strict than with Mr. Nice, and lower when a new topic is introduced than during revisions.

Our attention ebbs and flows even within a lesson, and we can gain even more information in the microcosm of real-time. At the beginning of the lesson a student might be alert, focused and enthused about the new topic, while 15 minutes into the task she starts to struggle with keeping focused as task difficulty increases. For some phenomena, like attention, we might experience changes every few seconds, but typical educational psychology measurements in the form of “Do you pay attention in class?” fail to capture these dynamic processes. Studies in which questionnaires are completed alongside automated gaze-capture enable insight into such short-term shifts in attention (Praetorius, McIntyre, & Klassen, 2017).  

When researchers in educational psychology switch focus from differences between students to differences between situations as exemplified above, this is referred to as an intrapersonal approach. Intrapersonal research on learning and motivation focuses on situations and sequences of situations experienced by participants. An intrapersonal approach recognizes that learning is a process that occurs over time, consisting of a sequence of experiences of learning from one moment to the next. Teachers deal with learning processes in their daily practice, but researchers are only beginning to capture multiple snapshots of learning processes (Schmitz, 2006).

Educational psychologists used to depend heavily on paper-and-pencil questionnaires to collect data about attention, motivation, and emotions. Increasingly, we are using more automated ways to collect data over multiple time-points, with the use of eye-trackers, gaze-detectors, and wristbands that capture physiological data (e.g., heart-rate, gaze patterns), that imply levels of attention, motivation, and emotions during a task. Also cognition as measured by repeated working memory tasks fluctuate over time (Dirk & Schmiedek, 2016).

New technologies allow researchers to collect multiple responses of students and teachers in real-time, using techniques called experience sampling and ecological momentary assessment (Goetz et al., 2014). The huge advantage of these techniques is that we can now reduce the time-span between the experience of an event (say, a teachers’ explanation of a math problem) and the reporting of the reaction to the event (increased attention or boredom), and the report is gathered immediately, not hours or weeks after the event. The problem with the gap between event and report is that we tend to replace the experience of the event with afterthoughts, “should and should nots” and colour the memory with emotions we experience after the event. This is called retrospection bias. To avoid this bias, modern devices such as Personal Digital Assistants, student response systems, tablets, and mobile phones are easy to equip with questionnaires that can be completed many times a day. Participants would then be asked for example “Are you paying attention now?” When we collect data immediately after an event, we can gather long sequences of data which are then analysed using models in which the complexity of the data can be taken into account.

The Network on Intrapersonal Research in Education (NIRE) was set up at Oxford University in 2014 to bring international researchers and practitioners together to ponder these issues (see NIRE website). Over the last three years, gatherings of international experts (including several APA Division 15 members) at Oxford, York, and Helsinki have resulted in two key implications for educational practice. First, in most cases there are larger differences within students (i.e., between experiences from one learning situation to another), than there are differences between students. This supports a view that learning is a process over time (Schmitz, 2006). Acknowledging such variation is crucial for teachers to capitalize on teachable moments when student motivation is high, something all students experience.  Another scenario could be when a usually task-focused student is at his or her lowest moment—this is when re-engagement can be supported.

The second key implication from the NIRE seminars is that students experience situational demands and expectations differently. For example, the intrinsic motivation of lower performers is higher in situations when they perceive a higher level of extrinsic motivation, while intrinsic motivation of higher performers is not derailed in those same situations (Malmberg et al., 2015). What is motivating to one student might demoralize another. Feedback to one student is mobilizing, but the same feedback to another student can be paralysing. This has implications for teachers’ choices of short-term versus longer term strategies for engaging students.

While there is much focus at present on measuring and comparing and improving performance of countries, school districts, schools, and teachers, such a one-size-fits-all approach to learning is inconsistent with intrapersonal research. Intrapersonal research forms a basis on which to advocate personalized approaches to learning and individual’s experiences of it. Research on educational processes is progressing rapidly—assisted by new technologies that allow for collection of vast quantities of intrapersonal data. The findings from new forms of intrapersonal research provide a much clearer picture of how learning and associated factors—attention, motivation, and emotions—occur within classrooms.

This post is part of a special series curated by APA Division 15 President Bonnie J.F. Meyer. The series, centered around her presidential theme of "Welcoming and Advancing Research in Educational Psychology: Impacting Learners, Teachers, and Schools," is designed to spread the dissemination and impact of meaningful educational psychology research. Those interested can learn more about this theme in Division 15's 2016 Summer Newsletter.


Dirk, J. & Schmiedek, F. (2016). Fluctuations in elementary school children’s working memory performance in the school context. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 722-739.

Goetz, T., Frenzel, A., C., Hall, N. C., Nett, U., Pekrun, R., & Lipnevich, A. (2014). Types of boredom: An experience sampling approach. Motivation and Emotion, 38, 401-419.

Malmberg, L-E., Pakarinen, E., Vasalampi, K., & Nurmi, J-E. (2015). Students’ school performance, task-focus, and situation-specific motivation. Learning and Instruction, 39, 158-167.

You are reading


How Education Research Can Track Intrapersonal Changes

Education research should focus on situations and processes.

Teaching Text Structure Improves Reading Comprehension

Text structure should be taught starting in the primary grades.

How Learning Theory Can Help STEM Educators

The use of learning theory may improve student-centered learning techniques.