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Harnessing Emotions to Help Students Learn

Presented at the 2017 OAPT Conference, York University
Chris Meyer, teacher York Mills CI

The old me would have scoffed at the thought of my students’ emotional states while learning. “Suck it up and do your work” was my no-nonsense, starch-collared mantra. After all, I’m a physicist! But as I learned more about how the brain works, I was forced to confront my very emotional, educational prejudices. Let’s put our feelings as educators aside and simply ask ourselves the question: “what can I do to help my students learn better?”. Research into the workings of the brain reveal how deeply connected emotion is with learning; emotion is hard-wired into cognition. Teachers need to design lessons to account for students’ emotional response to learning and incorporate not just curriculum outcomes, but emotional outcomes. This article is a summary of the workshop I gave at the 2017 OAPT Conference. You can watch the video and download the PowerPoint slides to learn more.

From an evolutionary perspective, the brain has one ultimate goal: survival. To ensure survival, the brain has evolved four behaviours: (1) understanding its environment, (2) controlling its body, (3) avoiding danger, and (4) finding pleasurable things. In a simple way, this categorizes the complex set of behaviours our students (and teachers!) demonstrate in class.

The brain wants control - over its body and over the learning environment that we create for students. Teachers also want control, leading to a conflict between deeply wired behaviours. However, teachers can give up many of the behavioural controls found in a traditional classroom (sit down, eyes to the front, be quiet, open your notes, stay still) by adopting a student-centred approach to learning. Cooperative group learning leads to a more balanced compromise between competing needs for control. It is no coincidence that students learn better in this environment.

Avoiding Danger
The amygdala is a very old part of our brains, one that is responsible for making largely negative emotional associations with our experiences and memories. It wants to protect us and takes its job very seriously! Through repeated association, the amygdala can connect experiences like learning math, taking a test, or being asked a question in front of the class, with experiences that present physical or emotion danger. If this association becomes strong, it will trigger a stress response in the body that hinders learning. This appears in our classes as anxiety, lack of confidence, or as disengagement with a task.

Understanding its Environment: Cognition
The human brain has unlimited potential for understanding its environment and figuring out how the world works. This is a deeply wired behaviour, just like the others. However, educators routinely get in the way of cognition’s proper operation and impede what is called the cognitive learning cycle. Our brain is wired to do four basic things while learning: (1) sense information, (2) attach meaning to the sensory inputs, (3) plan what to do, (4) test those plans, and repeat. Traditional learning emphasizes the first step, almost to the exclusion of the others. Students are bombarded with information (step 1) and given very little opportunity make connections to their experiences (step 2). Traditional homework involves the manipulation of information (step 3) but provides few meaningful opportunities to test the value of those manipulated ideas (step 4). It’s a bit like driving a car while pressing the gas and the brakes at the same time.

Exciting Demonstrations?
Teachers often use exciting demonstrations to motivate students and get them thinking. A popular way of doing this involves three steps: predict, observe, and explain. But sometimes teachers want to tackle a thorny “misconception” using a process that elicits the student’s prediction, confronts them with the actual physical observation, and attempts to resolve the differences. But what is actually happening in a student’s brain as a result? Research is providing some new answers. The teacher has asked the student to use a mental process that the teacher knows will likely produce an incorrect prediction. The problem is, using a mental process is the same as reinforcing that process: the “misconception” has just become stronger. Next, the student has what is likely a negative experience as he or she discovers: “I am wrong”. This can have a cumulative affect on their confidence in physics: “my experiences are not helpful for learning physics”.

Find Pleasurable Things
Negative experiences are very powerful because survival depends on carefully remembering and avoiding such experiences. Luckily, there is a mechanism that can tame the amygdala and overcome past negative feelings. When we successfully figure something out and complete the test step of the cognitive learning cycle, our brain releases a chemical signal carried by dopamine. This produces a feeling of pleasure and is part of the brain’s reward system. Pleasure and learning are very deeply connected: humans need to learn an awful lot in order to survive. However, traditional learning often hinders the proper operation of the cognitive learning cycle, preventing the pleasure response that is naturally associated with learning.

In my experience, the most important emotion experienced while learning is the pleasure that comes from success. Teachers need to create a learning environment where the vast majority of students can regularly feel successful in a meaningful way. That doesn’t mean getting an answer that agrees with the one in the back of the textbook; that is not a meaningful experience for most students. In physics, the greatest dopamine hit arrives when students physically test a result and see that it agrees with their predictions (especially if they worked hard for those predictions). It’s a real boost to discover that the ideas you are working so hard to develop not only work, but can be used to do real, tangible things.

Tap into Emotion and Help Your Students Learn
We all experience learning differently and there is a very good chance that your personal experiences learning physics do not match those of your students. Put your experiences aside, observe your students with an open mind, and think carefully about what might be happening in their brains. Wishful thinking will not change the brains in our students. Luckily, no such thinking is required. These brains have evolved to become powerful thinking engines that are hard-wired to learn with limitless capacity. Students need to understand this. Teachers need to understand this. Learn more about the brain and how it learns, and let the insights change the way you teach.

Download the PowerPoint slides here:
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