For the last 30 years, experts have been opening our eyes to the role emotions play in learning. We cannot merely consider learner’s cognitive needs as we attempt to improve learning models (Pekrun 2014). An expert at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, has found that emotional responses precede conscious understanding and are essential for memory and application of learning (Immordino-Yang 2016).
With this renewed understanding of emotions in the learning process, we must also recognize that each learner’s feelings are unique. In other words, what’s negative for one learner, may be positive for the next and vice versa (example: learning how to ride a bicycle).
At the same time, what ends in struggle or even failure for me, might mean immediate success for you. However, often we are consistently required to tackle subjects that leaving us feeling unpleasant emotions (example: learning new skills can be overwhelming).
Given the spectrum of emotions in play throughout the learning experience, we are left to wonder what differences does it make whether we are motivated by fear, joy, or any other emotion? We therefore see that the most universal aspects of learning are indeed the objectives we set rather than the emotions we feel. Based on the constructivist idea that the acquisition of knowledge is a process from the inside (Chomsky 1979), how can an engaging experience be created for everyone?
Let us consider the benefits of emotions in this digital age. As reflected in cinema (Bladerunner, The Matrix, Her, Chappie, …), emotions allow us to retain our humanity. They distinguish us from the technology we use and more importantly, are a springboard to commitment and motivation. In other words, Feeling > Thought > Action (Darling-Hammond 2003). In parallel, positive emotions can be elicited during learning in order to increase motivation. A variety of methods such as creating personal interest in a topic, instilling the confidence that it is possible to meet the objectives, eliminating comparison between learners, and making connections to reality are useful for ensuring higher levels of success (Darling-Hammond 2003).
As we have just seen, positive emotions stimulate motivation. Let us now notice that positive emotions lead to higher achievement. Another way that emotions are linked to our learning is through emotional intelligence or EI. Understood as the ability to manage emotions and relationships, EI has a direct influence on our success (Goleman 2004). Other research suggests that when compared to IQ and technical skills, emotional intelligence makes up nearly 90% of what distinguishes us from others and leads to growth in a professional environment (Wilcox 2015). If you have ever succeeded because you followed advice given by professional coach or heard encouraging words from a manager, you have experienced the benefits of emotional intelligence. This fact underscores the efficiency of creating a positive learning experience.
A third aspect of emotion is that reframing our failures reveals opportunities to improve (Dailey-Hebert 2015). It would be easy to limit positive learning experience to positive emotions. However, a positive emotion (example: dreaming of our weekend away) may actually distract us from attaining our learning objectives! Additionally, negative emotions sometimes lead us to learning as well (facing fears in order to make an important speech in a meeting).
In this short summary, we have demonstrated that emotions are linked to our human experience; they are universal yet unique; understanding our emotions leads to our success; and finally, both positive and negative emotions can lead to or inhibit learning.