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The Potential of Teachers' Heart Rate Variability as a Measure of Teacher and Student Experiences

Sun, April 19, 8:15 to 9:45am, Virtual Room


Heart rate variability (HRV) could indicate how classroom processes affect students and teachers particularly when they are not conscious of these effects or when they experience unclear or mixed emotions (Blascovich, 2013). Higher HRV indicates a relaxed state and has been related to better relational attachment (Welch, 2016) and a manageable cognitive load (Luque-Casado, Perales, Cárdenas, & Sanabria, 2016). However, few studies have related measures of HRV during classroom interactions to students’ and teachers’ experiences. In this study, we address the research questions: What is the relationship between teachers’ HRV and (1) teachers’ emotions and (2) students’ emotions and engagement?

Theoretical Framework
Blascovich’s (2013) biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat asserts that individuals experience an event as a challenge if they perceive that they have adequate resources to negotiate it, but as a threat if they do not. Both challenge and threat lead to increased heart rate (HR) but only perceptions of threat lead to large decreases in HRV. In a productive and supportive classroom, students and teachers would experience some challenge, which would elevate HR, but not to the point of having the consistently lowest levels of HRV.

Methods and Data Sources
HRV measures the variation in time intervals between heartbeats and has been operationalized as the root mean square of successive differences (RMSSD) between heartbeats. RMSSD was collected from 80 Dutch secondary school teachers using the VU Ambulatory Monitoring System (VU-AMS; for the duration of one lesson (45 to 90 minutes). RMSSD measurements were divided into increments of 10 seconds (Beijersbergen, Bakermans-Kranenburg, van Ijzendoorn, & Juffer, 2008; Shaffer & Ginsberg, 2017) and the range of RMSSD measurements for each participant was divided into four equal groups (1=low, 4=high RMSSD). Then, the percentage of total RMSSD measurements that fell into each category was calculated for each teacher. Teachers and their students (n=1794, with an average of 22 students in each class) reported their emotions after the lesson using the Achievement Emotions Questionnaire (Pekrun, Goetz, Frenzel, Barchfeld, & Perry, 2011) and students also reported engagement levels using the Engagement Versus Disaffection With Learning: Student-Report (Skinner, Furrer, Marchand, & Kindermann, 2008). Correlations were run between each of the four RMSSD groups, teacher and student emotions, and student engagement.

Lessons in which teachers had high percentages of low HRV moments (RMSSD_Quart_1) contributed to negative student experiences, such as less pride (r=-.26), more disappointment (r=.24), and more disengagement (r=.23). High percentages of low-to-moderate HRV moments (RMSSD_Quart_2) correlated with more student pride (r=.25), less disappointment (r=-.24), and less disengagement (r=-.24). Teachers experienced this situation as boring (r=.31), perhaps because they experienced little challenge. Students in lessons where teachers had high percentages of high HRV moments (RMSSD_Quart_4) reported less relief when that lesson was over (r=-.24). Students thus had positive experiences in lessons where teachers were engaged, but not overly taxed.

Scientific Significance
RMSSD provides clues regarding the cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being of both students and teachers, which has implications for the creation of optimal conditions for learning.