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Student Research Suggests Achievement Emotions May Hold Key to Academic Success

Chemical Education doctoral student Alex Graves is researching whether achievement emotions affect how well a student performs a task.

Alex Graves is researching chemistry students' achievement emotions for his University of Northern Colorado's Chemical Education Ph.D. program dissertation. Achievement emotions are those tied to reaching a goal, and they affect how well a student performs a task. That performance then impacts achievement emotions. For example, a student with high levels of anxiety will likely perform worse; then, performing worse will increase their anxiety.

"My research uses a survey tool to examine several different achievement emotions, both positive, like pride, and negative, like anxiety," Graves said. "The emotional state of a student can affect their ability to achieve success, and it creates a type of feedback loop."

He said this cycle can profoundly impact how a student experiences their education – from classroom lectures to labs to homework.

The student learning experience has fascinated Graves since his master's program in Chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis when he realized he wanted to focus more on how students learn chemistry rather than the science of chemistry. At UNC, he's been able to do just that. Graves works as a teaching assistant in chemistry labs, and in spring 2024, he will teach a lecture course in general chemistry.

alex graves
Alex Graves

"We're looking to shine a light on this aspect of how students are experiencing class. There's a lot of research into what kind of information students retain, but there aren't a lot of people looking into how students emotionally experience a class. Next spring, I will be able to gauge my own classes' emotional landscape and get a barometer of sorts," he said.

In Graves' study of nine achievement emotions, he found certain emotions, like anxiety, tend to be more potent in affecting a student's performance. His research indicates that women tend to experience more anxiety than men, and homework provokes anger and anxiety in many students.

"One of the more important things is that demographics can affect how someone experiences a class. Ethnicity, if they're a first-generation student and other characteristics, all can have an impact," Graves said.

He said achievement emotions apply to everyone's lives, not just students. Counteracting negative achievement emotions could result in better performance and more success in any area of life. In the academic realm, he'd like chemistry instructors to use the survey to determine how students feel about a month into a semester. By then, he said, students have a sense of what their class is like.

"If some things are off, maybe something needs to change. For example, if students are feeling anger and stress with homework, the instructor might consider lightening the load," he said.

Making adjustments to improve the student experience is something he takes seriously.

"I went to a private high school with a graduating class of eight students. We had one of those scales like at a doctor's office, where you slide the weights across to get the exact measurement. Later, when I was studying for my bachelor's in chemistry, in my first lab, they used electronic balances. I'd never even seen one, and all the other students were weighing out stuff. So now, I try to level the playing ground for students as much as possible, and I think that comes through in my research," Graves said.

He said Assistant Professor Corina Brown helped him develop the research by giving him the stepping stones he needed along the way.

"It's been very helpful to have Dr. Brown guide the project, especially since I came into the program having not done any kind of education research. She helps make sure I write the results in the proper way to convey them to the scientific world," he said.

Brown believes Graves' research will help illuminate how students can be successful.

"If we want to provide equitable environments for our students, we have to be able to better understand their emotions. Achievement emotions play a very important role in the success of our students," Brown said.

She'd like more students like Graves because he is dedicated to research and teaching and stays on top of things.

"Alex is an amazing communicator, and he brings a lot of clarity to chemistry students. When he graduates in spring 2024, I think he will make a great faculty addition to any chemistry department," she said.

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