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Julia Moeller Ph.D.
Julia Moeller Ph.D.

Mixed Feelings About School

Are highly motivated students those we do not have to worry about?

Much has been written about the important role that engagement, interest, and positive emotions play in students’ learning processes. Immense training and research efforts are being spent on attempts to understand and raise students’ learning motivation. The basic assumption often seems to be that a highly motivated student is a good student.

Research supports the idea that increasing a students’ motivation can make a positive difference in the achievement and well-being of a student.

On the other hand, more and more parents, students, educators and researchers raise concerns about increasing levels of stress, tiredness, and burnout-levels among students at high schools and colleges.

Students report feeling so pressured to get into a good college that by the time they achieve that goal, they feel so fatigued and stressed out that they are not able to fully benefit from the opportunities they have opened up with their hard work. In line with these reports, recent research found that 75% of the emotions students experience at high schools are negative, with feelings of tiredness and stress being among the most frequent ones. School psychologists and college counselors tell tales of perfectionism gone wild in students suffering of procrastination, performance anxiety, and eating disorders.

Could it be that high motivation bears unexpected risks for some students?

Some recent studies point to the downsides of high student motivation. For example, in a 2016 published comparison of engagement and burnout profiles in US and Finnish high school students, my colleagues and I found that about one out of three US students experienced at the same time elevated engagement and burnout. This suggests that in contrast to common assumptions, high engagement does not always imply that a student was flourishing, but it sometimes means that a student is highly motivated but reaching his or her limits. Consequently, highly engaged students may need to learn how to renew and maintain their resources in order to stay healthy and high-performing. For example, many students are sleep-deprived and might need support to get the hours of sleep they need in order to function well.

But even resourceful students may experience negative feelings when facing tasks that are particularly important to them. Recent studies found that motivation for learning tasks is often experienced together with elevated levels of anxiety and stress in challenging learning situations. Challenging tasks may trigger such feelings of being “anxiously eager” even in moments when students enjoy what they are doing. This positive anxiety can turn into feelings of fear and intimidation if a student looses the confidence of being able to control and master the current task. Even flow experiences (states of deep concentration and absorption in a task) were recently found to be associated with raised levels of stress and anxiety. It thus seems that learning motivation may come at high costs for some students. We can speculate that caring about grades, college admission, and careers might be a factor explaining part of the high stress levels of students.

While it seems that negative emotions may not always avoidable for highly motivated students, there are ways to protect these students from severe consequences such as burnout. These protective strategies include:

  • making sure that students learn to monitor, maintain, and renew their resources and understand the importance of recovery,

  • emphasizing that staying healthy and balanced is an important aspect and condition of success,

  • teaching students strategies to manage and reduce stress and anxiety, and

  • paying attention to the emotional needs of highly engaged students as much as to the emotional needs of disengaged students.

The risks and needs of support should become part of our debate about student engagement.


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Open access article

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Titz, T. & Perry, R. P. (2002). Academic emotions in students’ self-regulated learning and achievement: A program of qualitative and quantitative research, Educational Psychologist 37(2), 91−105.
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Salmela-Aro, K., Moeller, J., Schneider, B.; Spicer, J., & Lavonen, J. (2016). Integrating the light and dark sides of student engagement with person-oriented and situation-specific approaches. Learning and Instruction, 43, 61–70. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2016.01.001

Tuominen-Soini, H., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2014). Schoolwork engagement and burnout among Finnish high school students and young adults: Profiles, progressions and educational outcomes. Developmental Psychology, 50(3), 649–662. doi:10.1037/a0033898

About the Author
Julia Moeller Ph.D.

Julia Moeller, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center, where she studies motivation and emotions.