Emotions impact learning in four ways. They impact our levels of motivation (motivational impact). Positive emotions can help a student engage with learning longer because they stay motivated. Emotions during learning also impact our feelings toward education (psychological impact). If we have positive experiences, we are more likely to enjoy our schooling and develop a love of learning. Emotions can also make group work run much more smoothly (social impact). However, we need to keep in mind that learning sometimes requires confusion and frustration when we are learning difficult but necessary concepts (cognitive impact).
1. Psychological Impact: Positive emotions make you feel better about learning
Some cognitive psychologists believe that students who have positive attitudes toward education also feel as if they are in control of their own learning, which leads to increased effort. This is an upward spiral. Students who put in more effort will feel additional positive results, which will lead to even more effort being put in. Such students have developed what Carol Dweck calls a ‘growth mindset’ toward education.
Unfortunately, many people who speak English as a second language or are from a minority cultural background feel extra barriers towards schooling. These learners risk ending up resenting education and falling behind. This has flow-on effects like worse job prospects and a higher chance of going into poverty. They may also pass on negative attitudes toward schooling to their children, which can lead to a poverty spiral. To prevent this, educators should work hard to make sure vulnerable student populations have positive learning experiences in the classroom.
Related Article: How Can Health Influence Learning?
2. Motivational Impact: Positive emotions make you more motivated
Positive feelings toward learning can make students more motivated. This in turn can help students engage with learning materials longer.
With positive emotions, we should expect to see less students skipping classes or dropping out altogether. Students will want to engage with the learning materials, which will be very good for student learning in the long run.
People with positive emotions toward learning also require less bribes, rewards or punishments to encourage them to learn. People with negative emotions, on the other hand, will not feel an internal drive to learn (what we call ‘intrinsic motivation’). Instead, they will only be motivated by extrinsic factors such as bribes. Using extrinsic motivators is an inferior way to learn and would likely lead to poorer results in the long run.
So, with positive emotions to learning comes intrinsic motivation – or the desire to learn because it feels good to learn!
3. Social Impact: Positive emotions improve cohesion in learning groups
When students feel good about learning, they are more likely to:
- Comply with instructions from teachers; and
- Contribute their own ideas and thoughts to group discussions.
These are social factors. In other words, learners who feel good about their education will be more open to engage socially with teachers and other learners.
Here’s a related example, which I think you could relate to: When I used to work for a shoe store, I had a boss who made my days a living nightmare. She would yell and scream and boss me around all the time. It gave me a negative attitude toward the workplace. I ended up resenting coming to work and didn’t put my all into my job. I avoided my boss and rarely put my hand up to volunteer for extra tasks. I put my head down, avoided everyone, and waited for the day to end.
The same goes for school: if a learner has bad experiences at school, they will be reluctant to engage with their peers or teacher. They will be trapped in a negative and isolating spiral which will prevent learning.
On the other hand, if a learner loves school because they get positive emotions out of it, they’re more likely to get involved, be in the center of the action, and be willing to communicate with their peers.
4. Cognitive Impact: Negative emotions are necessary for learning difficult concepts
This is a big one people don’t talk about much.
While we want to think of school as ‘fun’ and always exciting, sometimes thinking hurts!
There is a concept called the Kort’s emotional learning spiral which states that learners go through a necessary pattern of emotions to learn something new. Here it is summarized in the image below:
According to Kort, we start out in Stage 1, feeling great about the idea of learning a new concept. But when we’re confronted with confusing or challenging information, we head into Stage 2, where we start feeling confused and anxious. The new information is challenging and hard to understand!
Then, as we start to fix up our old, outdated knowledge we’ll enter into a state of frustration. We’ll be trying out new answers to difficult questions and realizing some of the things we used to think were true are, in fact, untrue. Here, we’re not feeling very positive emotions at all! Nonetheless, it’s a necessary stage in cognitive development because to learn new things, we sometimes have to challenge our old ways of thinking.
Lastly, learners will enter Stage 4. Here, learners feel emotions like determination and hopefulness because they’re feeling like they’re finally understanding a new concept!
As you can see, learning leads to a lot of different emotions and sometimes negative emotions like confusion, annoyance and frustration are par for the course: we need to go through these states to come out the other side having learnt something important!
Plus, when you get to the end, you feel the best emotion of all: satisfaction at having overcome challenges to be a smarter person today than you were yesterday!
Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: Changing the way you Think to Fulfil your Potential. London: Robinson.
Kort, B., Reilly, R., & Picard, R. (2001). An Affective Model of Interplay Between Emotions and Learning: Reengineering Educational Pedagogy-Building a Learning Companion. In Okamoto, T., Hartley K. R & Klus, J. P. (Eds.), IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technology: Issues, Achievements and Challenges (pp. 43-48). Madison, Wisconsin: IEEE Computer Society.
Pekrun, R. (2016). Academic emotions. Handbook of motivation at school, 2, 120-144.
The learning spiral image on this page is reproducible under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Feel free to use it for commercial and non-commercial purposes so long as you provide a do-follow hyperlink back to this website. Image adapted from Kort, Reilly & Picard (2001).
Tissington, S. (2018). Kort’s Learning Spiral. [Image]. Retrieved from: https://helpfulprofessor.com/emotion-in-education
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.