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  • Danielle Raja

Week #7: Emotion and Learning

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

It's been an emotional week! Between the US Presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention being a wife, mother, student, etc., I've had a hard time focusing on learning. Chances are, you and your students have had a hard time with it too. So let's reflect on the impact of emotion on learning.


The first thing that comes to my mind is Maslow's hierarchy of needs:

Abraham Maslow proposed this theory in 1943 in his paper, A Theory of Human Motivation. It is still appropriate today. As you can see, there are 5 tiers. The bottom 2 tiers represent our basic needs: food, water, shelter, security, etc. Above that is our psychological needs: affection, esteem, etc. And at the very top is self-actualization, or higher learning, creativity, self expression, etc. The (very) basic premise is that we can't move higher on the pyramid until we address the levels below. The bottom 4 tiers are categorized as physiologic needs with the top of the pyramid labeled as a 'growth need.' Our basic, physiologic needs must be fulfilled before achievement of self-fulfillment (which is where learning lives). You can really see how it is easy to derail the desire to learn when you consider this theory.


For those who wish a closer look at Maslow's theory. (video) And here's a fantastic explanation of Maslow's Hierarchy for Learning Professionals. (blog)


Ok, so how does this relate to learning?


Emotion can have a positive or negative impact on memory and learning. This relates to the amygdala and hippocampus (both are in the brain) and their functions. In fact, the entire Limbic System is involved in learning:


This is an awesome graphic depicting the locations and functions of these structures, but this is not an anatomy lesson. So, what happens when anxiety or stress takes over? How does this affect learning?


It comes as no surprise that too much stress can negatively impact the functions of the hippocampus causing a reduction in memory, attention span, and learning. In fact, it can shrink! *This has mostly been studied in animals, but more evidence is showing up in victims of trauma and PTSD sufferers.


Stress can put us in fight-or-flight mode which reduces fine motor activities, raises heart rate, can cause nausea, and more. When a student's body is practically vibrating from these physiologic changes, it's no wonder that learning can't take place!


Anxiety can also negatively impact learning. It can cause the learner to 'freeze,' avoiding anything that might draw attention (such as getting called on). This learner can't focus on anything but the source of the anxiety and until that is alleviated, no learning will take place.


That's a lot about the negative impact of emotions on learning, but how about the positive?


The Broaden and Build Theory by Barbara Fredrickson postulates that learners do well when they feel good. This is contrary to the popular opinion that learners feel good when they do well- although that is also true! Encouraging positive emotion in learners is a great way to foster curiosity and encourage learning.


The graphic below depicts how positive emotions can lead to an upward spiral and encourage intellectual curiosity, but also a downward spiral which can shut your learner down.



Per Fredrickson, happiness/joy has been shown in studies to lead to greater creativity, greater resilience, and children have been shown to do better on tests when asked to think of a positive memory before testing. Fostering happiness or other positive emotions is as simple as showing interest in a person, or giving a small piece of candy. There is no one-size-fits-all way to foster positive emotion in our learners, so it takes time, effort, and knowing your students.


Although we don't have the power to mitigate all of life's stressors for our students, it is clear that the most effective teachers try.


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