Using emotions to make learning more efficient

Posted by Greten on 12 Oct 2019 under Theories

Learning is not an entirely cognitive process. Before, the widely accepted theory is that learning is a rational process, and that emotion is a hindrance to learning. Recent researches on neuroscience show that learning and emotion arise from interdependent neural processes. These studies show that learning is like most other humans activities: involves both underlying cognitive and emotive processes.

Hence, instead of viewing emotion as an enemy of learning, it is another tool that you can use as you plan and design your lesson. Emotion can be a two-edged sword. Certain emotional states can be conducive to learning, while others can impede it.

Neuroscience of emotion in learning

Learning and emotion are both mechanisms that humans developed as we evolved from simpler organisms.

An illustration of a cross-section of the brain. The hippocampus and the amygdala are labeled.Two parts of the brain allow emotion to be useful in the learning process, the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala is among the recipients of signals from the environment, always on the lookout for a threat. Then, it quickly processes the signal to determine the best response to that threat, flight or fight. The flight response is triggered by fear, while the fight response is triggered by anger. Even though the amygdala triggers a person's flight or fight response, other emotions such as curiosity, attraction, and joy can arouse it.

The hippocampus is a small tissue attached to the amygdala. It got its name because it resembles a seahorse, which is "hippocampus" in Latin. The post about attention in the AGES model already mentioned the hippocampus; it is the part of the brain that is responsible for the transmission of information to long term memory. The hippocampus of a person activates when he or she is focused or attentive to something, be it an event, a lecture, an activity, or anything that can be a new source of information.

When the amygdala is stimulated, it sends signals to the hippocampus that the source of the stimulus is worth paying attention. It causes the person to focus on the source of the stimuli, and the information from this source is transmitted to long-term memory, allowing the information to be useful later.

The interaction of the amygdala and the hippocampus with each other and with the rest of the brain allows our ancestors to survive when they were nomadic hunters and gathers. Imagine yourself in the situation of our ancestors. Why is that grass over there is moving? It's a lion. Run! Why is the ground shaking? It's a mammoth. Attack!

Notice how the sight of lion induces fear while the view of mammoth induces joy and hope that perhaps, the tribe has enough to eat? As our ancestors have this experience, their observations—such as the movement of the grass and the shaking of the ground—are fast-tracked by the hippocampus to the long term memory due to pressure from the amygdala as these induce strong emotions.

Three stands of DNA double helix in a black background.Some animals do not learn, or their learning is at the very least minimal. To survive, they rely on instincts. Humans have instincts too, such as the instinct to eat, release waste, and make babies. On the other hand, knowledge, experience, reasoning, and emotions govern the action of humans. Instincts are like appendages; they need to evolve to change. Meaning, there must be mutations to the DNA that are transmitted and further mutated over several generations. European explorers wiped out the dodos because the dodos neither learned nor have the instinct to avoid humans. Learning allows us, humans, to quickly determine where the food is and how to easily obtain it, and where the dangers are and how to avoid them. Some animals also exhibit learning, such as dolphins, elephants, and monkeys.

Emotion and learning served our ancestors well, and they continue to serve us. Survival now heavily relies on how much you can learn. Need to finish studies so you can get a high paying job? Or maybe you are working currently, but you need to learn additional skills to obtain promotion? Learn, learn, and learn more. Emotions can be used to help learners learn. A good teacher or instructional designer includes emotions among their repertoire of tools to make learning more efficient.

Using emotions for effective elearning design

Learning is more efficient when powerful emotions are involved than without them. Two other elements of the AGES model are at work whenever emotions aid the learning process:

  • Attention: as explained before, emotions can make the learner focus and ease the transition of learning to long term memory
  • Generation: people tend to remember events when there's strong emotion associated with them. Remember, at one point when you were a student, you're trying to recall an answer to the test and suddenly remembered it because your teacher cracked a joke to introduce that lesson. You remember the joke clearly, and in turn, the lesson that comes with it.

In theory, all emotions can help facilitate the transmission of information to long term memory. However, not all emotions are beneficial to learning. Negative emotions can help maintain memory but prevent insight formation and coming up with ideas on how to use the new knowledge.

How many of you reading this blog post has a personal experience or knows someone who associates certain topics with a bad experience such as a teacher shaming them in front of the class, or having to work with a bullying classmate? They might be able to answer objective-type test items about the topic, but they cannot answer essay-type application questions because the lingering bad memory they associate with it prevents them from focusing on what the test is asking.

The healthy way of using emotions to aid in the learning process is to stimulate slightly positive feelings.

A rounded rectagle has a gradient of orange on left end and yellow on right end. A sad devil emoticon is on left end and a smiling angel emoticon on right end. A dart pierce the gradient near the center but slightly closer to the angel.

Negative emotions prevent insight and focus as already explained, while too positive feelings can distract from learning. For example, an instructor or facilitator (or even an elearning narrator) cracking a joke at the start of a lesson is okay. If the jokes are too frequent within the lesson, the learners are likely to remember the jokes but not the lesson.

Here are some simple tips to obtain that slightly positive feeling, which is best for learning:

  • Add humor to the lesson. Crack a joke at the beginning to catch the attention of the learners. Made a funny remark if you notice something that seems funny within the lesson, like "Would the white blood cell get sick if it swallowed a bacteria?" or "Maybe, male anglerfishes should remain single or enter the priesthood." Please bear with me. I know I'm horrible at making jokes. The key to good humor is that it is funny enough to make the sleepy learners awake, and it does not distract from the lesson.
  • If you are in a classroom, the lecture part of blended learning, or you and your learners are communicating through live chat, one interesting activity is to ask them to share how the topic of the lesson has affected their lives. Those with similar experiences will be able to relate to one another, while those who do not have much experience will realize that what they are learning has real-life impact, not just some theoretical knowledge that they study to pass the tests. If the course is an asynchronous elearning, you can setup a bulletin board where learners can share as they go online, with the understanding that other learners can read them.
  • Add gamification and other forms of competition as a way to encourage participation. You can convert the non-graded knowledge check questions into something where learners can compete. It can be in the form of a quiz bee or some popup questions that can rack-up points for the learners. They can exchange these points with some rewards or privileges at the end, such as a simple award or souvenir, or the chance to have the first pick of a topic for a term paper. The purpose of the points is to motivate the learners. It should not be graded because it is a tool to reinforce learning, not to measure what they already know.


Last updated on 12 Oct 2019.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning