Harnessing Emotion to Boost Learning

“Keep Quiet…”

As children enter into the classroom, the most common expectation a teacher would have is for them to take their seats, sit quietly, take out their books, and wait for the next instruction. However, this is an inevitably unrealistic and impractical expectation.

By nature, students, who are social beings, crave to establish communal connections with one another, the moment they come in contact with each other. The seating arrangements in classrooms reflect this interactive component of student-life. Nevertheless, the actual social interaction (in the form of talking about academic or non-academic matters) is officially, formally, and systematically discouraged to allegedly ensure learning.

The Real World

Imagine sitting all alone on a bench in a recreational park. Because you are by yourself and the bench is still spacious, someone comes along and sits next to you. For a moment, there is complete silence in the air. This is a good silence. It is an indication that both you and the other person are thinking hard about ways to break the ice and start a conversation.

This example shows that by nature, humans like to engage in the enterprise of social interaction, in response to anything that remotely resembles a social interactive situation. Talking and interacting with another yield many psychological and accompanying physical benefits. Hence, it is a biological, psychological, and sociological survival tool that humans have used since time immemorial.

Warming-up in the Classroom

Students go through a variety of experiences at home the previous day and night. They get excited about sharing some of these with their classmates the next day at school. Most often, the first and most appropriate opportunity (in their minds) they get to do this is in the class, before a lesson begins, or just after a lessons ends.

How does a teacher deal with this situation? Should he/she ask students to “Keep quiet!” and expect them to be about their business as learners? Or should he/she be concerned about decorum and discipline, and ignore the fact that students do want to interact and socially connect before they begin plunging into the process of learning?

Personally, I would answer this question by saying, “It is wise and appropriate to allow students to talk, about anything they are interested in before beginning a lesson.” There are times in my own teaching that I entered into the classroom, and contrary to conventional practice, announced, “I want all of you turn to someone nearby and talk to that person about your weekend…” Of course the noise level goes up; however, my intention for doing this is to ensure that students are emotionally ready and prepared to undertake and follow through the lesson for that particular day.

I realized that every time I allowed students some time to talk about something non-academic before beginning with a lesson, they were more relaxed, positive, and geared up for learning.

To make things better, sometimes, we talk about an issue, related to the previous day, or week, as a whole class. This becomes a more interesting and energizing discussion and leads the whole class into a thinking mode. Students loosen up and contribute their opinions and ideas without hesitation. There is no right or wrong answer. They can be themselves and express their emotion and thoughts without the fear of evaluation.

Consequently, students realize that the teacher is interested in an issue that they are concerned about. The gap between the teacher and students is significantly reduced, and a neutral, stimulating, positive platform for teaching and learning is created. Students feel comfortable to take an active role in the learning process without feeling like they were being pushed or unreasonably forced.

What Brain Research Says?

Studies in brain processing (storing and retrieving information) reveal that there is a strong connection between reason (cognition) and the three-pronged elements required in learning – emotion, activity, and meaning.

Scientists have discovered that the same areas of the brain that are involved in processing emotion are also involved in processing memory. The connection is so strong that reason, emotion, and bodily sensations and functions affect each other at neurological levels.

Emotion activates attention, the primary and most vital component of any learning or information processing act, which then triggers the short-term and long-term memory, and eventually makes the overall learning process possible. In other words, learning does not take place at optimal level in the absence of emotional arousal. Apart from being responsible for initiating and activating cognitive processes, emotions are also responsible for behavioral responses of individuals.

Since the relationship between emotion, cognition, and motion is inevitable and real, it is necessary for teachers to get students to become emotionally involved, before initiating teaching and learning. When students are emotionally captivated in the initial stage of learning, the chances of them paying attention is significantly increased. Increased attention enables students to be highly engaged (mentally and physically) and hence gain maximum benefit from whatever is taught or discussed.

The more emotionally engaged a student is, the more likely he/she is to learn. Furthermore, having positive and favorable feelings toward a task (academic or non-academic) helps students to feel that they have done the task well. Similarly, when they experience negative and unfavorable feelings toward a task, they experience difficulty.

“Let’s Talk…”

Allowing students to talk to each other about non-academic matters, before or in-between lessons, is an appropriate teaching practice. Instead of depriving students of their basic social need to interact and feel good about being connected with one another, teachers might want to consider taking a more progressive approach in harnessing the emotional gains that accompany such a practice.

The best learning takes place when a positive feeling toward a task enables students to use what they already know, motivates them to extend that knowledge and build on it, even to the extent of constructing new knowledge. Casual talking with peers allows students to experience a positive emotional arousal, which serve to improve their own learning. This is true at psychological, as well as, neurological levels.

1 thought on “Harnessing Emotion to Boost Learning”

  1. Dr. Roy, it is really nice article. Social engagement via converstation will also help enhance students’ emotinal as well as intellectual aspects. However, as teachers, we have to set time restraint, which means how long or how many minutes we will give them talking, sharing, or conversing as part of classroom warming up activity. Kids here love to talk alot.
    All the best,

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