Notes on: Steinberg, C.  (2008) 'Assessment as an "emotional practice"'.  English Teaching: Practice and Critique 7 (3): 42-64.

Dave Harris

Everyone seems to experience 'strong emotions of anxiety, irritation and even despair during times of assessment'(42), but these expressions state private.  In the public sphere emotions are rarely mentioned, and assessment becomes 'an emotionless, objective reality'.  Assessment is becoming increasingly important.  In South Africa it is central to the struggle for social justice, because it is an important gatekeeper.  It is also used to lever educational reform, since formal examinations imply knowledge which will bring about different pedagogy and more 'effective' teaching.  It is also a way of holding schools accountable for educational quality, and this itself is linked to economic growth.  International standardized tests enable the ranking of different countries.

Nussbaum suggest that any important component of social interaction will 'evoke strong emotions' (43), and these are defined as appraisals or value judgements about how well external and uncontrolled items are proceeding [classic but limited notion of affect].  Emotions are instant, sometimes subconscious appraisals of objects including events and ideas which are important to our wellbeing.  Intense emotions mean the situation is highly important, whereas quality, such as feelings of pleasure, helpless judge whether what is happened is beneficial [classic modernized Spinoza].

However, there are negative emotions in private, although there is public support for assessment.  Teachers and others dislike being assessed and expressed negative emotions when they are.  Teachers complain about excessive paperwork, and talk about feelings of failure if they are or their students fail.  Yet they see assessment as necessary, and claim claim that it motivates people.  Emotions necessarily affect teacher planning and practice, but seemed to be contradictory.

Hargreaves has already argued that teaching is an emotional practice which shapes the feelings of teachers and students, and their stances towards school structures, pedagogy, curriculum, parents and educational change.  Emotions affect their professional identity and their educational ideals.  Positive emotions in particular seem to be important for learning, and teachers are often urged not to be afraid of feelings, since they can be connected to cognitive understanding.  Students can also be encouraged to become tough minded if there is a space for their feelings [a longitudinal research study is cited, 44], where warm and emotional relationships predicted 'reading and maths skill growth'.  The quality of teaching also depends on a sense of purpose and motivation, as well as confidence.  Teacher education should be focused on the relations between emotional presence and work.  Commitment and resilience also 'requires a predominantly positive emotional state' (45).  Assessment seems to provide particularly difficult moments with distressing emotions.

MacIntyre has referred to external and internal '"goods of practice"', with the former relating to social and financial rewards, and the latter to skill and knowledge [which presumably produces pleasure].  Assessment straddles these two areas, though, providing visible external goods, but less obvious internal ones.  Teachers can take pleasure in observing student progress, however, although these depend on being able to notice progress.  External goods are often comparative in a different way, and this comparison often disadvantages students from less advantaged backgrounds: public assessment can show a lack of achievement, and this can produce disappointment and frustration for teachers as well. 

If accountability is included, extra tensions are added: the inner vulnerability of teaching becomes apparent.  Such a vulnerability is 'intrinsic to being a teacher' (46), because there are competing demands, yet teachers 'feel responsible for their students' successes and failures'.  Some failure is 'inevitable', however.  Teachers are left with having to make complex moral decisions which have visible public consequences: [imposter syndrome] is chronic, especially if teachers internalized the expectation that they are perfect.  The result is what Hargreaves calls '"powerful guilt traps"', and guilt can lead to 'cynicism, exhaustion and burnout.

There is a large literature on assessment, including using it to promote student learning.  The emotions involved are sometimes hinted at.  There is also a huge literature on teacher emotions [including Zembylas], and it is increasing: Sutton and Wheatly (2003) have a review.  Teachers discuss positive emotions like love, caring or affection, satisfaction and pleasure when children make progress, pride and excitement if they do, and 'their desire to feel supported'.  Negative emotions include anger and frustration related to student misbehaviour or uncooperative colleagues and parents, anxiety about whether they are effective, helplessness and guilt, and sadness 'about the home lives of some of their students'(47).  Zembylas in particular has suggested that the impact of testing might be researched, but there is still 'practically nothing on the emotions of the assessors'.  Those that exist looked at things like internal and external goods, focusing on emotions during an assessment event, or during judgement of students.  No one has researched the emotions connected with marking, perhaps because they are so uncomfortable.  There are studies of emotional responses to standardized assessments and accountability, with intense emotions related to work that assesses teachers directly as in performance appraisal.  It is a mosaic.

The studies of teacher emotions during assessment (48) showed that teachers were having to decide whether to emphasize 'retributive' or 'utilitarian' goals in their response to assessment results, to consider retaliation for a past wrong, or altering future behaviour respectively: largely it was the latter.  Much depended on the characteristics attributed to students, how responsible they were for their own failure, and how permanent the problem was seen as being. Anger resulted if students were seen as responsible, and retribution ensued, while unfortunate circumstances lead to sympathy and utilitarian responses.  Permanent sources of failure were treated sympathetically, a temporary failure was greeted with emotions which 'wavered between irritability and sympathy', and no sympathy was directed toward students perceived as lazy.  A similar study of PE teachers showed that they valued progress and effort and preferred assessment criteria that stressed them: lack of effort led to a lack of sympathy.

Feeling anger in response is particularly strange, and seems to imply that teachers feel they have been treated with contempt [I feel that way with students who attempt to plagiarize naively - they think I don't know my own stuff!].  Perhaps this is because student results are seen to be a reflection on teacher competence.  Perhaps some anger is really directed at themselves but projected outwards: retribution can stem from powerlessness.

The complexities prompted Steinberg's own reflections, noting the flows of emotion during assessment, including some where she was an External.  She felt pain and anger at reading a presentation, confused and irritated at having to make so much effort to make sense of it, anxious at having to tell the student.  The result was 'writing curt comments all over the margins'(49).  After calming down, this turned into concern, about the impact on the student, and whether she had the right as an outsider to fail the piece.  Wouldn't the internal supervisor be insulted?  Was her judgment fully accurate anyway? Confusion resulted because judgment had turned into judgement of her own abilities as an assessor.  The supervisor calmed her down and rationalized a negative judgement as only a part of the process.  She notes that relationships are involved even if students are not actually present.  [A note explains that less emotional turmoil arises from multiple choice or one-word answer formats]

Another study of emotional responses (Stough and Emmer 1998)  turned on teachers providing students with feedback after a test.  Some teachers 'dreaded' the process (50) and were afraid students would be 'volatile and attacking', including those who had got good marks but wanted better ones.  Emotional concerns dominated their comments.  The goals were both educational and 'emotion based - to avoid confrontations with students'.  They structured feedback to limit negative emotions, while remaining consistent with their beliefs.  They controlled the space for negative emotions: they spent most of the time explaining questions and answers, or they 'asked students to discuss answers with each other in small groups'.  They asked particularly aggrieved students to speak to them privately.  They masked their own 'nervousness, frustration, irritation or anxiety' with a 'calm, deliberative persona'.  This managed the event, but also 'caused good opportunities for explanations and clarifying misunderstandings to be missed'.  Students did not enjoy the feedback sessions, and often appeared 'confused, argumentative or too upset to speak': few claimed to have learned anything.

This is a clear example about how feedback can produce strong and mainly negative emotions based on fear or anger.  These emotions can be transferred in the form of blame.  Teacher emotions are interconnected with beliefs and goals, which is why they do feedback like this, but they also want to avoid negative emotions and anxiety.  The problem seems worse if teachers believe that the exam was appropriate.  These emotions clearly had an effect on actions.  For example anxiety lead to careful preparation and consideration of strategies, including anticipating student responses, but other strategies sometimes emerged to prevent escalation, usually by cutting down on the 'space for dialogue and exploration of misunderstood content' (51).

We can use Zembylas on the notion of emotional rules to explore further.  If emotional rules expect control of negative emotions in favour of empathy, calmness and kindness, this will require emotional labour so that teachers can embody and express appropriate emotions.  Self alienation and stress can be the result as well as increased satisfaction and self esteem.  We can also divide the functional and dysfunctional uses of emotions.  Emotions can alert us to problems, but can be dysfunctional if they lead to blaming one's self or others [or the system, says Winograd, the little conservative].  Teachers can be stuck by dysfunctional emotions, or propelled into action by functional ones, so that 'a liberating form of emotional labour can potentially be a driving force for professional transformation'[tautology of course] (52).  We can see functional and dysfunctional uses of emotion in the examples above, but note the effect of conventional emotional rules which still prevented people from openly acknowledging and overcoming dysfunctional emotions: they coped but were not liberated.

Zembylas points out that traditional emotional rules often discourage new pedagogies, so reform must take account of them.  In South Africa, there is encouragement to use formative assessment in addition to summative, but this can produce tensions, leading teachers to 'find it depressing and frustrating'.  This could be because there are different emotional rules involved.  Summative assessment assumes students are responsible for their own results and failures: it follows that teachers can identify with success but not feel responsible for failure, so they should be no negative emotions and a comforting 'emotional distance between assessors and assessed'.  Summative assessment also assumes that it follows pleasurable teaching, again offering a suitable separation.  Feedback by teachers can be seen as 'doing students a favour'.  However, formative assessment leaves teachers still being responsible for student progress, having to engage with student misunderstandings, involving teachers more in failure, even if this is seen as an opportunity for learning.  Teachers are both teachers and providers of unpleasant feedback, mixing 'pleasurable and difficult emotions' (53).  Here, the emotions need to be acknowledged.  This is more demanding, and shifting towards more formative involves a change in both beliefs and emotional rules, which will require emotional labour, unacknowledged by traditional emotional roles: reformers and teacher educators should acknowledge the need for doing this emotional labour.

Similar points applied to the increase of assessment used as accountability measures.  Negative and positive emotions are involved.  Classroom assessment is often seen as very different from external standardized assessment, with the former favouring deep learning, and the latter encouraging skills inappropriate for learning in the knowledge society [I am paraphrasing Hargreaves].  External standardized assessment is more 'high stakes'and thus likely to produce intense emotions, some in the background.  The study is cited on teacher responses referring to the publication of test scores as leading to shame, embarrassment, guilt and anger, reservations about the validity of the test and the need to raise scores, anxiety about the emotional impact of these tests on young children.  There was a conflict with teachers' educational ideals and beliefs, and fear of public failure, leading to a perceived threat to integrity. 

One result was to leave teachers 'scrambling for changes to their practice that would avoid such negative emotions in future' (54).  These changes were not positive.  Time available for learning was reduced, so was curriculum coverage and teaching strategies—teaching to the test.  Another study also found negative emotional responses, a feeling that considerable burdens had been added to, that changes produced uncertainty, and there was strong anxiety about public test scores.  Again, the response was to reduce participation in professional development, spend less instructional time, and emphasise specific topics.

Another American study shows broad agreement that teachers have strong reservations about tests and concerns about negative effects, but in this case, the context was important, and district leadership affected attitudes.  So did the 'socio economic status of the student community in the district' (55).  Some districts employed a strategy which conformed to teacher notions of good education, while others led to teacher resentment.  Teachers in low socioeconomic status areas were particularly worried that their efforts would not be effective since they had to deal with students with low skills.

The new logic of accountability means that teachers cannot separate themselves from failing students.  They are unable to blame tests, management, socio economic status or students.  'But accountability closes off these avenues of emotional relief', and intensifies fear of failure.  Strong negative emotions and demoralization often result.  Accountability means external goods are valued over internal ones.  Teachers now become not assessor but assessed, and this increases their vulnerability.  Again, this vulnerability arises from intrinsic uncertainty.

Hargreaves has also addressed the debate about accountability, and worries that those schools that seem to fail more often are those where their kids are from low economic status.  He describes earlier attempts to define school failure, and notes how they always seem to blame schools in poor communities.  He draws upon the work by Darwin on the 'emotion of disgust' (56), which had an evolutionary function to isolate contaminating persons.  He cites the work by Sennett on how disgust is attached to the marginalised in order to exclude them, a part of "an emotional economy of social exclusion".  He notes that emotions are welcomed in primary school, but seen as intrusive in secondary schools, because of a move towards [Bourdieu's] distinction.  [There is also a hint of a Parsonian shift towards impersonality and universality]. There is an underlying link between practices of social distinction and school failure based on the emotion of disgust.

Steinberg is convinced by this argument and finds disgust in the media as well as in herself.  Disgust could well act as 'the emotional undertow of school failure' (57) underlying rational and utilitarian views on assessment, and appearing mixed with sympathy, pity - and anger.  Even teaching to the test might be a way of avoiding 'suffering the disgust of the powerful'.

Other forms of accountability like inspections or curriculum revisions also evoke 'intense and negative emotions'.  There is a case study (Jeffrey and Woods 1996) of the effects of school inspections which produced a lot of preparatory work characterized by '"fear, anguish, anger, despair, depression, humiliation, grief and guilt"', a loss of confidence and feelings of worthlessness even with a good report.  [I think it's the humiliation of being tested by lay people].  The more professional teachers were the most emotional.  Other studies have investigated the emotional impact of performance related pay, and again showed that teachers were insulted, felt betrayed and resentful at having to go through so many hoops get a pay rise.  The researchers noticed that negative emotions can lead to cynicism and weariness, the programmes of curriculum reform to the usual feelings of anger and resentment, inadequacy, confusion and demoralisation.  The loss of professional control seems to be crucial combined with having to complete  'an onerous and depressing task' while not being trusted by their own administration.  Few teachers said that these changes had led to improvements.  Researchers found more 'technocratic' stuff with meetings and bureaucratic language.  Conformity was rewarded rather than individual progressive change.  Overall, teachers had suffered trauma.

The problem is that accountability means more paperwork which is a distraction from real work.  It involves distrust of the teachers word.  It 'generates insecurity and guilt by implying there is one perfect way to teach and assess, which is contained in long, disconnected lists of abstract criteria that no teacher can only measure up to' (58).  Functional emotional labour is clearly required to avoid negative experiences feeding forward into assessment.  Accountability might help to 'set emotional rules of impersonal distance and disengaged objectivity that come to govern classroom assessment'[I'm not sure if she sees this as a good or a bad thing]

So overall the mosaic shows that teachers have to grapple with emotional complexity.  They are sympathetic to failure if the student is not to blame, but angry when s/he is.  Formative assessment is particularly stressful when feedback has to be provided, especially where the emotional rules have not been changed.  Assessment is itself 'emotionally conflicted' (59) 'because it confronts teachers with the limits of their efficacy' yet is essential to teaching for internal and external reasons.  This conflict should be addressed.  Accountability especially when high stakes standardized assessment is involved seems to lead to teacher demoralisation, especially in some circumstances where teachers have little chance of success.  Teachers are often left 'angry, ashamed, professionally weary' and insecure.  Teachers are fighting back, though [good -- not just dong emotional labour to cope?] .

Assessment might be made more '"emotionally sound"'.  More positive emotions might be encouraged to motivate teachers and students, with maximum autonomy within 'institutional goal structures'.  Feedback is necessary, but it should explain 'both the required and the actual performance' so that it becomes perceived as more valuable.  Teachers need to feel empowered to try different ways to teach.  They need to be able to do the right sort of emotional labour, [ie adapt] working collaboratively, and feeling able to express emotions, with support, otherwise they will simply try to avoid unpleasant emotions.

The emotional rules have changed, but in unhelpful ways.  The traditional emotional rules said students were responsible for their own failure, and formative assessment acted as an 'emotional safety valve', but this is now been taken away, and teachers are urged to reform their teaching as a response.  Accountability also prevents distance because teachers are seen as accountable to taxpayers and as [entirely?] responsible for failure. [Oddly, Steinberg sees these two developments as contradictory though]

Teachers now need to start doing different sorts of emotional labour [why not political resistance?]   Zembylas is optimistic that this could lead to transformation, by showing that the old emotional roles were contingent [the new regime is transparently a pain in the ass -- we don't need emotional analysis?] .  If teachers 'accept the validity of their emotions and reflect on their inherent value judgments, they can gain insights...  [Which] ... might lead them to disturbing and subverting the emotional rules' [but they have already been subverted as argued above, and not in a way that liberates teachers].  Good old inservice education will do this [intellectuals lead the way]

In conclusion, assessment is an emotional practice and we should study the emotions involved.  The work so far has showed a contradiction between accountability and formative assessment [I don't really understand this, she seems to say that the emotional rules are different, but this assumes that formative assessment can retain its neutrality?].  Teachers require more support as well as more challenge.  The field is under researched.  We might investigate the emotions involved in order to bring about change and improvement.

References include:

Hargreaves, A (2004) 'Distinction and disgust: The emotional politics of school failure', but this is unfortunately a course document for the University of Pretoria.

Jeffrey, B and Woods, P (1996) 'Feeling depersonalised: The social construction of emotions during an OFSTED inspection'.  Cambridge Journal of Education 26 (3): 325 - 44.

Solomon, R (2003) What is an emotion?  Classic and contemporary readings.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stough, L and Emmer, E.  (1998) 'Teachers' emotions and test feedback'.  Qualitative Studies in Education 11 (2): 341-61

Sutton, R and Wheatley, K (2003) 'Teachers' emotions in teaching: A review of the literature and directions for future research'.  Educational Psychology Review, 15 (4): 327-358

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