How Humans Learn: Emotion

The ADEIL book group has been reading How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching by Joshua R. Eyler. After reviewing fields of psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, Eyler saw that humans learn when there is curiosity, sociality, emotion, authenticity, and failure; below are a few takeaways from his chapter on emotion.

Eyler’s chapter on emotion opens with a quote from Nel Noddings’s Happiness and Education. “Through more than five decades of teaching and mothering, I have noticed that children (and adults, too) learn best when they are happy” (p.113). Emotion and cognition – the process of gaining understanding or knowledge – are connected; positive emotions, especially an attachment to the subject matter, help learning, while negative emotions can hinder the learning process. If students have no connection or attachment to what they’re learning, they can still recite or recall or regurgitate it for an assessment, but it won’t make it impact with the student. Worse, moments of stress or trauma can interfere with learning processes.

As instructors, what can we do to provide positive emotions in our learning environments? Eyler states that “happy students seem to be more attuned to the work of the classroom and more expansive in the connections they make” (127). Little things, like injecting some humor, can help with learning; you shouldn’t feel the need to turn into a stand-up comic, but as you find moments of levity, this can help lower anxiety (after all, students will need to be assessed on our content, and their grades can impact their academic trajectory) in the classroom. Simple things like smiling and seeming approachable to students also make a positive impact.

Eyler brings into the discussion the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls fear responses. This triggers the impulse to fight, freeze, or flight; this is helpful for survival situations, but gets in the way of the brain’s cognitive functions, like learning. This can negatively impact students with high test anxiety. It’s also related to the topic of trigger warnings, where teachers give a disclaimer about potentially disturbing or traumatic content. If a student has experienced the kind of trauma being studied in the course, it can cause anxiety or flashbacks to the traumatic event. By prefacing this content with a trigger warning, or content warning, or content disclaimer, or whichever term you might prefer, potentially impacted students can try to use coping mechanisms to regulate emotions and still be in a state where their brain can learn.

As the chapter closes, Eyler calls for engaging with students empathetically. “Such a move requires that we see and value our students as fellow travelers on this educational journey and that we may actually care enough to help them reach their destination” (147).

While one might not necessarily connect distance learning and emotion in the same way as a face-to-face course, it’s wonderful seeing how IL teachers have made those connections in their courses. Do you have any highlights to share about ways you’ve used emotion in your Independent Learning environments?

If you’d like to join the ADEIL book discussion, go to:

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