Emotions and Equity in Higher Education

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

The emotional dimensions of learning in higher education have attracted an increase in scholarly interest, with clear connections for widening participation and equitable participation. Going to university is described by Christie (2009) as an “emotional process” (p.135), with the emotional experience shaped by students’ biographies, pathways taken, and transition experiences. There is a significant body of work that has examined issues relating to belonging and isolation (for example, Read, Archer & Leathwood, 2003; Christie et al., 2008; Quinlan, 2016). Moreover, issues relating to students’ wellbeing and mental health have promoted growth in concern about the affective elements of learning at university (for example, Larcombe et al., 2016). As Beard, Clegg and Smith (2007) argue, students embark on emotional journeys that impact on all aspects of their lives.

Transitioning into university is understood to be a particularly emotional period, with Scanlon, Rowling & Weber (2007) describing the emotionality of transition in terms of students “experience[ing] feelings of loss of continuity as they leave behind familiar learning contexts and make the transition to university” (p.237). There is a strong presence of negative emotions in the literature; for example, Gilmore & Anderson’s (2016) research foregrounds the range of negative feelings that students experience, with many of their participants reporting feeling emotions such as “‘worry’, ‘scared’ ‘frustration’; ‘fear’; ‘tearful’; ‘panic’; ‘concern’; ‘anxious’; ‘unmotivated’; ‘bored’” (p.691). Similarly, in their study of mature age students Kahu et al. (2015) found that, “enjoyment and anxiety, were common, while others such as hopelessness and relief were rare” (p.486). Furthermore, studies suggest common time-related patterns across cohorts, particularly in the first year of transitioning into university study, with negative feelings (such as stress and anxiety) often recorded around the deadline for assessments (Beard, Clegg & Smith, 2007; Gilmore & Anderson, 2016; Young et al., 2019). While the majority of student-participants in Ryan and Henderson’s (2018) study reported rarely or never feeling discouraged by feedback, suggesting that the anticipation of deadlines is worse than the results, the students in Webber’s (2014) student-participants (studying on a Foundation degree in the UK) reported feeling “quite exposed and open to criticism, therefore seeing it as both labour intensive and emotionally challenging” (p.98).

However, there is also a strong thread in the literature that offers a counter-narrative to this negative framing. Hagenauer et al.’s (2018) study found a strong relationship between students’ positive emotions and study commitment. This finding related to perceptions of relevance of course material and their futures, a sense of achievement and purpose after receiving ‘fair’ grades and feedback, and when students have meaningful relationships with their peers. Hagenauer et al. also found that overall, women are more likely to report positive emotions/ higher life-satisfaction than men (see also Evan, 2017 for gendered differences).

Overall, there is a clear sense of the importance of how students’ positive emotions are intricately linked to social relationships, involving other students, lecturers, friends and family” (Beard, Humberstone & Clayton, 2014, 638), which is also supported by Christie et al. (2008), who found “that it is the emotional gains produced through learning that helped students to form a (learning) relationship to the university, and enabled them to engage in the identity work necessary to become members of a new learning community” (p.573). Quinlan’s (2016) study suggest that when students perceive that their teachers listen and show immediacy through behaviors that generate a sense of closeness, they experience the class more positively, feel emotionally supported, and can express their own emotions more authentically” (p.104). Similarly, Moore and Kuol (2007)—in analysis of teaching award reports—suggest that “interest, humour, passion, love, joy, enjoyment, and exhilaration all featured as emotions that [nominees] linked to positive recollections of their teachers” (p.93). Other factors that can support students to develop positive emotional experiences are linked to mastery of academic practices (language, literacies, conventions), which can be usefully understood as ‘threshold practices’ to support students’ transitions (Gourlay, 2009).

However, while transitioning into higher education can be a deeply emotional experience for all students, comparative studies have identified significant additional challenges for ‘non-traditional’ students (Christie et al. 2008; Webber, 2014; Bartram, 2015; Burke, 2015). Christie’s (2009) study of non-traditional students who transitioned into elite Scottish universities found a clear classed distinction between students’ emotional experiences. Christie argues that these represent the hidden injuries of class; students’ narratives suggested that they feared the students who could ‘be’ students:

University was experienced as a space of difference where patterns of consumption were central to the process of othering” (p.133) The evidence presented here points to the real emotion work that many non-traditional students undertake to justify and defend their right to be at university even when their level of achievement entitles them to a place. While these conflicts and anxieties were experienced and managed on a personal level, it is important to be aware of the structural level at which they are produced and played out(p.134)

Similarly, Burke (2015, 2017) writes of how widening participation students, when framed in deficit terms, are often framed as needy and ‘childlike’, eliciting responses from the institution that evoke shame:

The injuries of misrecognition are embodied, through the internalization of shame, and are tied to the emotional level of experience (Burke, 2015, 394)  

Perhaps as a result of this misrecognition and the emotional reactions it provokes, ‘widening participation’ students may adopt strategies to help overcome these disadvantageous consequences. Bartram’s (2015) exploration of students’ ‘affective strategising’ (emotional dimension of student requests to lecturers for leniency with study requirements and assignments), suggests that this is intensified in the context of widened participation to higher education and the resulting diversification of the student body (and the needs, commitments, strengths they bring with them), with ‘non-traditional’ students (perceived to be) more frequently using affective strategizing because they may have more complex or complicated social situation[s] than ‘traditional’ students.

There is also a strong line of inquiry with regard to educators’ emotions in higher education teaching context. There is considerable interest in the emotional labour of working in higher education (for example, Woods, 2010; Meanwell & Kleiner, 2014; Kolomitro et al., 2019), particularly for Indigenous educators (Asmar & Page, 2009), with burnout a common concern (Kolomitro et al., 2019). Much of the literature on educators’ emotional experiences attends to the experiences of teaching, and related challenges and opportunities for identity development and self-esteem. In their study of new instructors’ experiences of university teaching, Meanwell and Kleiner’s (2014) participants experienced a discrepancy between their expectations and the reality of teaching, with some participants reporting surprise at the particular emotions they felt, as well as the emotional exertion of teaching. Similar to the research on students’ emotions, scholars have identified a range of emotions, with Hagenauer and Volet (2014a) identifying the most common negative feelings as annoyance, insecurity, worry/concern, disappointment, frustration, and the most common positive feelings as joy, humour, happiness/satisfaction, hope, passion/enthusiasm. In their other work, Hagenauer and Volet (2014b) note the relationship between expression and regulation of emotion with a sense of teacher professionalism.

Other works notes the strong positive association between higher education teachers’ positive emotions and student-oriented approaches to teaching (Postareff & Lindblom-Ylänne. 2011; Trigwell, 2012; Kordts-Freudinger, 2017). Other factors that elicit positive emotions are satisfaction with sharing with students (Asmar & Page, 2009), developing relationships and connections to others (Gannon et al., 2019) and developing trust, as articulated by Quinlan (2016, 105):

Opening ourselves up to students requires us to be aware of our own emotions, to observe and interpret students’ emotions, and to cope with students’ feelings as they are expressed. All of these are demanding and important—if rarely acknowledged— aspects of teaching

However, while teaching is acknowledged to be a deeply emotional endeavor, there are risky elements; as Quinlan (2016) describes, emotional investment is considered viewed as a ‘risky strategy’, partly because of fear of being hurt, and partly because of ‘emotional rules’ related to context/ roles/ institution. Teaching as reflexive and affective project that requires unpacking of the self. Barnett (2011) argues that “people must become aware of their own distrust, fears and needs in ways that lead them to change themselves. They might decide to protect themselves or to deliberately trust others not to take advantage of their vulnerability” (p.675). Taking a similar line and working with the ideas underpinning the notion of pedagogy of discomfort, Zembylas (2015) cautions us to be mindful of minimising the potential for ‘ethical violence’ to occur when working with discomfort. He describes pedagogical discomfort as the feeling of uneasiness as a result of the process of teaching and learning from/with others; insofar as the others ‘de-center’ us in this process, namely, they challenge our cherished beliefs and assumptions about the world, pedagogical discomfort seems to be a necessary and unavoidable step i pedagogical actions” (p.170).

Although there are significant challenges and risks to engaging in the excavation of the emotional terrain of teaching (and learning) in higher education, it is necessary and urgent. As Barnett (2011) identifies, “When we address the emotional and affective dimensions in higher education settings, we go against the grain of the modern university” (p.677). To ‘do’ equity well, acknowledging the affective is vital.

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.