Harnessing emotion to boost learning

The best learning takes place when students have a positive feeling toward
a task, as that enables them to use what they already know

“Keep quiet!”

As children enter into the classroom, the most common _ yet unrealistic _ expectation teachers have is for the youngsters to take their seats, sit quietly, and wait for the next instruction. Not only is the expectation unrealistic, it is impractical.

Students are social beings, so by nature they crave to establish communal connections with one another the moment they see 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 systematically discouraged to make way for 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 always used.

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. They even plan on it! Most often, the first and most appropriate opportunity they get to do this is in the class, before a lesson begins, or just after a lessons ends.

How should a teacher deal with this situation? Should he/she ask students to “Keep quiet!” and expect them to go 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?

I answer the 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 that I enter into my classroom, and contrary to conventional practice, announce, “I want all of you to turn to someone nearby and talk to that person about your weekend.” Of course the noise level goes up; but this helps to make students emotionally prepared to follow through the day’s lessons. It takes only five or so minutes.

I soon realized that every time I allowed students time to talk about something non-academic before abruptly thrusting a lesson upon them, they were more relaxed, positive, and geared up for learning.

Sometimes the whole class talks about a specific issue, or events of the previous day or week. 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 emotions and thoughts without the fear of evaluation.

Consequently, students quickly realize the teacher is interested in an issue 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 forced.

What brain research teaches

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 (focus), 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 an 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 real, it is necessary for teachers to get students to first 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 engaged (mentally and physically) and hence gain maximum benefit from the issues 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. In contrast, 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 may 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.

2 thoughts on “Harnessing emotion to boost learning”

  1. Dr. Roy,

    this article becomes an inspirational tool and in addition from that it helps enhance my knowledge to utilize the principles, i think the very fundamental ones stated above “warming-up & let’s talk”, when pursuing my career as a teacher.

  2. Hi Doe Doh,
    sometimes we forget that we are humans, before we are students, or teachers, or counselors – whatever roles we assume and play. So, it’s important to harness our natural tendencies to enhance other aspects of living, like learning. Thank you for your comment. Appreciate it.

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