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Enhancing Student Learning with Emotion

Student studies at the library
Library, students studying, finals week, Photo Patrick Sweeney

Focusing on how we can get students to feel that a topic is important is just as necessary as getting them to think about its importance. That being said, not all emotions lead to better learning, including anxiety, sadness, shame, and frustration. They can overwhelm students, lead to avoidant or resigned behavior, and distraction. On the other hand, emotions along the lines of curiosity, joy, empathy, and wonder can draw students in and motivate them to engage with the course, peers, and instructor. Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book “The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion” outlines key points and practical suggestions for how instructors can promote and elevate relevant emotions that support learning in their classrooms.

Emotional Hooks

Emotional hooks grab students’ attention by evoking curiosity in a course topic with an interesting or relatable example, story, case study, or puzzle. You may also tell a story that evokes empathy, hope, or passion for finding a solution to a real-world problem.

Course Climate

A warm course climate helps students feel more comfortable to express their ideas, explore questions curiously, and challenge their comfort zone. A welcoming course climate can be established by trying to learn your students’ names and encouraging students to attend office hours because you care about them. Additionally, in-class opportunities for collaboration and discussion can help students facilitate supportive connections.

Passion is Contagious

When instructors present their own enthusiasm and curiosity, through their body language, vocal tone, and eye contact, students’ positive emotions follow suit. On the other hand, if an instructor acts distracted or disinterested, students are likely to be bored or distracted themselves.

Emotions don’t always need to be held down in the classroom. Learning can be promoted by drawing on certain feelings or passions, resulting in efficiently and effectively engaging students, promoting a supportive classroom climate, and fostering students’ sense of belonging and community.

Adapted from Haley Dutmer, University of Notre Dame.