Students who go through bouts of ‘negativity’ achieve ‘best marks’

Those who are not happy all the time can ‘rise to challenges’, researchers suggest

January 12, 2017
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Students may benefit from the occasional bad mood if they want to achieve the best grades, according to research.

A longitudinal study led by Erin Barker, an assistant professor of psychology at Concordia University in Montreal, shows that it is students who experience bouts of negativity – rather than those who are consistently happy or unhappy – who graduate with the best marks.

Dr Barker and her co-authors followed students at a large Canadian university over the four years of their education, monitoring their emotional well-being and their exam results. They found that consistently unhappy students achieved the lowest grade-point averages, while consistently happy students performed well. The highest performing students at the end of their degrees, however, were those who reported general happiness interrupted by episodes of negativity.

“When we’re going through situations that are challenging, that are frustrating, that make us sad, we have emotions that inform us about our environment,” Dr Barker told Times Higher Education. “We need to be able to understand these emotions and regulate them such that we can make the appropriate response.”

Negative feelings, such as disappointment, anxiety or frustration, the authors suggest, could be useful components of self-regulation – a strong indicator of academic success.

“Within each academic year, there are lots of ups and downs, and [students] report at the time feeling bad or anxious or angry,” Dr Barker said. “And perhaps some of them can say, ‘I feel bad; that’s normal and expected’ […] then they can figure out in time that these negative moods are short-lived and that they can get over them.”

The researchers found that while this group of students earned the best grades overall, this pattern did not emerge until after two years. Dr Barker suggested that this could be because most students experience an emotional upheaval when they arrive at university and their ability to regulate emotions is disrupted by their new environment, new relationships and a much heavier but less structured workload. The highest performing graduates may have used the challenges of this transition as an opportunity to develop their self-regulation, she added.

“Our understanding is that these students are able to channel and rise to those challenges, and use that as motivation to study,” Dr Barker said.

“The negative mood may result after they get their exams back and they didn’t do so well; so the next time around they work harder, they organise their time differently, they talk to their professor. If they manage to use motivational aspects that come from these negative experiences, I think that’s what puts them on top of the heap.”

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