It is through emotional reaction that humans make decisions about what deserves attention and which does not. The author of How People Learn 2 observed, “Quite literally, it is neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about or remember information about which one has had no emotion because the healthy brain does not waste energy processing information that does not matter to the individual” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018, p. 29).
Eyler (2018) notes, “Emotions, then, are inextricably a part of our actions, our behaviors, or psychology, and our learning because they are connected to the development and function of so many other networks in our brains” (p. 119). Eyler alludes to the modular nature of humans’ brains; those networks associated with controlling and determining individuals’ emotional states are separate from those associated with cognitive functioning. Emotions, however, function as a gatekeeper. If a student is not in the appropriate emotional state, then no amount of effort will result in learning.
It is easy to conflate “liking” something with the positive emotional connection that can contribute to deeper learning. Some educators who resist recognizing the role of emotion in learning may counter, “Just because my students like the activity, it does not mean they learned what they needed to learn.” That is true and accurate, but it is also true that if students dislike the activity, they are unlikely to learn from it. In this situation, liking what happens in the classroom is also understood to be a proxy for positive emotion.
While positive emotions do tend to increase attention, engagement, and learning; positive versus negative emotions is not the meaningful typology of emotions with regards to learning. What matters is activating emotions versus deactivating. Activating emotions tend to increase attention and engagement and these can include pleasure and enjoyment (which are understood to be positive emotions), but hey can also include anxiety (in moderate levels). For example, learners who are anxious about making an important presentation will be attentive in a way that bored students are not.
Eyler, J. (2018). How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college teaching. West Virginia University Press.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.