Engaging Emotions: Role of Emotions in Learning
Upon hearing the word “emotions”, what immediately comes to mind is a line from the Destiny’s Child song “Emotions”, which declares, “Its just emotions taking me over.” This simple, yet profound line speaks to the immense and often overlooked power of emotions on our thoughts and behavior. Researches have long studied and debated this relationship between emotions and reasoning, particularly as it pertains to learning and development. Findings have been released showing a direct impact of emotions on the learning process. In the current midst of our country’s education crisis, these findings are essential to our approach in teaching and fostering motivated and successful learners in the classroom.
According to expert Priscilla Vail in her article “The Role of Emotions in Learning”, “Emotion is an on/of switch for learning…the emotional brain, the limbic system, has the power to open or close access to learning, memory, and the ability to make connections.”(Vail) From a physiological stand point, emotions originate in the brain’s limbic system which is located between the brain stem and the cortex. The brain stem sends sensory messages through the limbic system to the cortex where much of the thinking and learning occurs. The entrance of this sensory information into the cortex is dependent on the limbic system’s interpretation of this information as positive, negative or neutral. If the limbic system interprets the sensory information as negative then its access into the cortex is denied and therefore thinking and learning are inhibited. However, if the sensory information is interpreted as positive then its access to the cortex is granted and behavior is directed in such a way that thinking and learning is enhanced. This interpretation is dependent on one’s past experience, memories, and immediate reaction to a current event. (Lawson) Hence positive memories direct positive behaviors toward learning. Likewise, negative memories disable, discourage, and disrupt the learning process.
Given these neurological affects of emotion, not only is it made clear that reason, cognition, and learning occur as a product of emotion, but also that emotion stimulates attention. Through the process of sending sensory information into the cortex for further processing and storage, the systems in the brain enhance their engagement with that particular information. Thus, the increased amount of attention given to this particular information is warranted by the existence of positive emotion. As “the primary and most vital component of any learning or information processing act” (Unknown), this increased attention is essential for the process of learning.
The impact of emotions on learning is multifaceted and despite my brief synopsis, quite complex. As Candy Lawson summarizes this relation in “The Connections between Emotions and Learning”, “Emotions and learning occur in the brain. Learning means acquiring knowledge or skills. Learning requires thinking. Our thoughts influence how we feel. How we feel influences how we think.” (Lawson) Taking away from this quote, the process and act of learning is a consequent of emotion or the feelings it generates. Hence, if emotions produce positive feelings then learning is inevitable. Within the field of education, this powerful, conditional statement addresses students’ experience with learning and bares vital implications for the approach in engaging and supporting students’ learning.
As described, “The best learning takes place when a positive feeling toward a task enables us to use what we know, while motivating us to extend that knowledge and build on it.”(Unknown) Perhaps then, students’ motivation or desire to learn is a direct result of the feelings they associate with their preexisting knowledge and the lack thereof. These feelings, which I believe stem from connections with new incoming information as well as confidence in the ability to process that information, can be shaped and molded through pedagogy.
Throughout my experience in the classroom as an active observer and teacher, the one thing that always fascinates me is the power of connections. If students do not see a connection between what they are learning and what they are living, they become easily disinterested, paying little attention to the information being given them. When students lose interest in what is going on in the classroom, they can very easily tune it out, turning their attention to more interesting and stimulating things. This type of behavior is not uncommon and unfortunately, after a certain point, no matter how hard the teacher tries to pull the student back in and regain their attention, it seems an impossible task. Whenever this new information enters the student’s brain it is interpreted as irrelevant and is therefore disregarded. While the potential to learn remains, the desire to learn is lost.
Consequently, teachers should draw on connections to their students’ everyday lives when presenting new information. In doing so, the information is viewed as relevant and significant, associating itself with students’ past experience and memory. Hence students are more likely to pay attention given that the information is perceived as pertinent to their lives. Additionally and equally as important, the use of connections conveys a sense of awareness, acknowledgment and acceptance of the students from the teacher. While this may seem trivial to some, its overall impact on the students’ willingness to engage in learning is tremendous. This is due to the resulting positive feelings of appreciation and acceptance that become associated with receiving and processing new information. Through the use of personal (not necessarily individual) connections in communicating information, teachers attract the interest and attention of their students, triggering engagement in the learning process. But then, what about those students whose indifference to learning is not a result of feelings associated with their preexisting knowledge, rather those experienced through an awareness of the existence of prior knowledge that they were unable to acquire.
I have witnessed this to be the case for many students who repeatedly disengage from new learning material and attribute this to a lack of confidence. These students lack confidence in their abilities which are often attributed to repeated experiences of difficulty and/or failure. This generates a negative interpretation in the limbic system fostering negative behaviors that exhibit frustration, anger, intimidation. It is not surprising then, that when students do not think they can do something, they often pretend to not care about it and denounce it. Even on the occasion that they do make an attempt at learning, they are quick to give up, proving to themselves that they cannot do it. The negative feelings associated with learning repress the students’ engagement in the learning process. To combat these negative feelings and encourage perseverance, the teacher must find a way to create a positive learning experience for the student, transforming their negative associations into positive ones. By doing so, the teacher sheds light upon the vast capabilities for the students’ success and paves the way for future learning endeavors.
Considering these and other experiences with learning that students often encounter depending on feelings they associate with both their preexisting and non-existing knowledge and its influence on their motivation to seek new knowledge, the link between learning and emotion is clear and concise. While quite apparent, these links raise broader questions for further research on the impact of context on emotion on learning and the education system’s emphasis on learning and teaching occurring primarily within the confines of the classroom. In the meantime, the direct impact of emotion on the learning process provide relevant implications for education and pedagogy: Teaching should get students emotionally involved and engaged in the learning process (Perry)- activate emotions that encourage students’ motivation and consequent desire to learn.
Lawson, Candy. “The Connections between Emotions and Learning.” Career For
Development and Learning. http://www.cdl.org/resource-library/articles/connect_emotions.php
Perry, Bruce. (2000). “How the brain learns best. Instructor.” Scholastic Instructor
Unknown. (2007, Feb 1). “Why Emotion cannot be separated from teaching.” Affective
Vail, Priscilla L. (2010) “The Role of Emotions in Learning.” Great Schools.