Towards a Socio-cultural Understanding of Emotions in Assessment

Authors: Shijun Chen
Dr Juuso Nieminen, Assistant Professor, The University of Hong Kong

University students experience a wide range of emotions throughout their studies. Assessment inevitable arouses all sorts of emotions, such as happiness, anger, pride shame and fatigue. It is commonly assumed that in academic setting, emotions cast barriers for effective assessment interactions: emotions are seen as something that students need to control and regulate. On the other hand, it is increasingly noted that assessment and feedback are forms of interaction, which frames emotions as a natural part of these processes (see Ajjawi, Olson, & McNaughton, 2022). In this text, we will discuss earlier research concerning assessment, feedback, and emotions. We call for more nuanced ways of researching the role of emotions in assessment and feedback.

How does assessment feel like?

We all have experiences of how assessment feels like: as nervousness in our body as we take examinations; as boredom during self-assessment tasks; or perhaps as pride after receiving a high mark. Such a focus on physiological reactions is the common way of talking about emotions in assessment. Similar views dominate scholarly research as well (Ajjawi et al., 2022). Many studies have sought to understand what kinds of emotional reactions assessment and feedback evoke. For example, it has been shown that students with low scores may feel disappointed owing to their high expectations (Daniels, 2020). In other cases, low achievers might appear to fear punishment from teachers or parents coming along, or experience shame if peers laugh at the scores.

Assessment research knows that such bodily emotions play an important yet complex role in student learning. For example, when receiving critical feedback, some students may experience anger if they have high expectations on their academic achievement (Ryan & Henderson, 2018), ending up with actively attending to comments, such as initiating dialogues with the instructor. In similar situations, other students may feel shame , and might even refuse to engage with critical comments (Shield, 2015). Therefore, factors such as the functionality of feedback and students’ perceptions of feedback and themselves could impact their emotional responses to assessment, and the actions that follow.

Are emotions universal?

Such a focus on emotions as purely physiological reactions is only one side of the story. As the authors of this Blog, we are two teachers who share a different cultural background when it comes to assessment. Cindy is a language teacher from China who is  accustomed to high-stakes assessment and examination-oriented educational system influenced by Confucian culture settings. She has always experienced acute and fluctuated emotions throughout nearly every determinate test, such as nervousness before College Entrance Examination – and great relief after that.  Juuso is a Finnish mathematics teacher. Finland has no high-stakes exams in basic education, so Juuso never felt anxiety about assessment. Most commonly, he felt extremely bored while taking part in assessment, yet rarely distressed. In fact, Juuso’s own memory of assessment is rather ‘emotionless’ – he can barely remember any assessment situations! Based on our own experiences, it is easy for us to understand that emotions are always something social and cultural; and that assessment evokes different types of emotions and reactions in different contexts with varying assessment policies and practices. The very same mathematics exam paper is thus likely to evoke different emotions in Chinese and Finnish classrooms.

Understanding emotions from a socio-cultural point of view would enable us to better understand student behavior in assessment. For example, Rowe et al. (2014) argued that feedback has a dual role, being both an evaluation tool and a source of support. These two functions might evoke different types of behaviors in various contexts of higher education. For instance, supportive feedback is usually considered to be ‘positive’ in its nature. This could encourage students which may end up with students putting more effort in learning. Critical comments, often culturally considered as something ‘negative’, are likely to evoke emotions of anger or shame. Apart from that, the sources of feedback (e.g. teachers or peers) and the relationship between feedback providers and receivers also influence students’ emotional reactions. For example, the power balance between students and teachers varies greatly between Finnish and Chinese higher education systems. Moreover, feedback itself might shape the social relationships. Research conducted by Zhou et al (2020) reported that students held grudges when they received vague feedback from peers and felt anger when they sensed their peers’ careless attitude.

Call for more emphasis on the socio-cultural aspects of emotions in assessment research

We call for a greater emphasis on the socio-cultural elements of emotions in assessment research, considering emotions as a complex, contextually, and culturally mediated issue. We wonder: if researchers aim to truly understand the social norms, cultural values and disciplinary nuances of emotions in assessment, what would research look like? Currently, in assessment research, emotions are studied through rather simplistic methods such as interviews and surveys. How could we truly understand someone’s emotions? There are many exciting methods waiting to be used in this field. For example, what could assessment research learn from anthropology? What might an ethnographic study on feedback and emotions look like? Could we study the social norms of emotions by breaking these norms – such as by starting to laugh in an exam situation? Hopefully, future research would make its readers feel a wide variety of emotions!


Ajjawi, R., Olson, R. E., & McNaughton, N. (2022). Emotion as reflexive practice: A new discourse for feedback practice and research. Medical Education, 56(5), 480-488.

Daniels, L. M. (2020). Objective score versus subjective satisfaction: Impact on emotions following immediate score reporting. The Journal of Experimental Education, 88(4), 578-594.

Rowe, A. D., Fitness, J., & Wood, L. N. (2014). The role and functionality of emotions in feedback at university: A qualitative study. The Australian Educational Researcher, 41(3), 283–309.

Ryan, T., & Henderson, M. (2018). Feeling feedback: Students’ emotional responses to educator feedback. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 22(1), 1–13. doi:10.1080/02602938. 2017.1416456

Shields, S. (2015). ‘My work is bleeding’: exploring students’ emotional responses to first-year assignment feedback. Teaching in Higher Education, 20(6), 614-624.

Zhou, J., Zheng, Y., & Tai, J. H.-M. (2020). Grudges and gratitude: the social-affective impacts of peer assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 45(3), 345-358.

1 thought on “Towards a Socio-cultural Understanding of Emotions in Assessment”

  1. Thanks very much, Cindy and Juuso, for your thoughtful contribution. I wonder if prior literature has placed somewhat too much emphasis on the potential negative impacts of harsh or critical feedback. A useful question to me is as follows: under what circumstances does critical feedback that challenges the emotions act as a spur to improvement? I think the Ajjawi et al. (2022) that you cite is useful in moving this issue in productive directions.
    David Carless

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