When I was in elementary and high school (which I admit, was a long time ago), and we would discuss a student who did very well in school, we would refer to her as a “brain.” We have a tendency to think of learned individuals as highly rational, disembodied brains. Computers in early days were referred to as “electronic brains.” What we did not know at the time is that success in learning involves not just reason, but emotion. Emotions form a critical piece of how, what, when and why people think, remember and learn. It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion.1
The center of the brain for emotional processing is the amygdala which is also the area of our brains responsible for our survival. It makes sense that we are going to learn better what we think we care about, feel we need to learn, or what will provide pleasure for us. Sure, we can “learn” through rote or repetition what is not relevant to us, but we learn better when it is important to us.
The role of emotion in learning is complex. We bring our genetic make-up, our intrinsic likes and dislikes, skills and qualities, strengths and weaknesses—our entire range of feelings to learning. Positive emotions can propel us to new heights of learning. Think of students reading deep into the night under the covers because they cannot put down a favorite book. Fearful or more negative emotions can prevent us from learning, causing us to want to escape from what is perceived to be hard, threatening or simply irrelevant. Think about students who put off homework or skip class either through lack of interest (“This is not important to me.”); fear of failure (“I just don’t get this, it is painful and not pleasurable.”); or lack of confidence (“I am incapable of comprehending.”).
Understanding the role of emotions in learning poses a challenge for those of us–parents, teachers, tutors, employers–responsible for helping others learn. It involves understanding what is relevant to each learner, how to inspire relevance, and how to adapt teaching to individual goals, interests, feelings, fears and anxieties.
We took a look at the experience of students who had used Tutor.com’s online, on-demand tutoring service during one 24-hour period in January to get a sense of how we are doing toward addressing emotional aspects of learning. As this service provides academic assistance to students on the topic(s) they bring to us, there is built-in relevance. We wanted to look deeper. Are we going beyond relevance by establishing connections, engaging students, and helping them to feel successful?
Students are encouraged to leave comments at the end of each session. On that one day in January, students left about 454 comments at the end of their sessions with tutors. It was striking to note their words describing their interactions online with tutors who are anonymous and not visible to them, and yet clearly providing academic experiences that involved the students on an emotional level.
Students consciously or unconsciously communicated a sense of having established a feelings-based connection with their tutors. There were at least 102 comments which included the words: love, like, superb, excellent, best, awesome, amazing, perfect, patient, pleased, incredible, and wonderful, often accompanied by exclamation points—that ubiquitous symbol of emphasis!
Students also took the time to leave comments indicating a feeling of having achieved understanding as well as feeling confident, thus experiencing reduced anxiety about learning. Over 194 times, students used words such as great, confidence, helpful, grateful, thankful, and A++. It is unlikely that students would be appreciative of an academic experience that did not meet their needs.
What principles of learning might we extract from the experience of analyzing these comments? Think about it. When you want to learn something, what do you need? Or when you need to learn something, what do you want? Of course you would want someone to understand your academic needs and emotional triggers. You might also look for interaction with a reliable source of information, individual attention, engagement, clarity, support, encouragement and a little fun and inspiration wouldn’t hurt, either. As a teacher, tutor or parent who is trying to inspire relevance in your students or a student wanting to learn, in a way, all you need is love.
1 Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen. “Why Emotions Are Integral to Learning: An Excerpt From Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s New Book.” Retrieved from: https://www.noodle.com/articles/why-emotions-are-integral-to-learning-mary-helen-immordino-yang.