The Emotional Component of Learning

I know I said I was going to make a follow-up post on the term “feminism� and why it might be useful, but I thought I’d make another post or two in the meantime on different subjects so people don’t get too burned out on the subject of feminism. This post is on two of my favorite topics: emotion and education.

Typically, we envision teaching and learning as part of an intellectual exercise. One model is that the teacher shares information with the learners that they did not previously know. Another model is that the teacher acts as a moderator for learners to explore ideas and learn how to develop critical thinking skills. Generally, teaching and learning are considered to be things that primarily involve our mind or our intellect.

While I think the church complicates this paradigm with its basic model of using the Spirit to teach, today I want to discuss the role of emotion in teaching and learning, because I don’t think it gets enough attention. My general argument is that the emotional atmosphere of a classroom (or other educational setting) has a strong impact on how students learn; while learning has strong intellectual components, if students are too uncomfortable (angry, annoyed, fearful, etc.), they are going to tune out and refuse to engage in the learning process.

Here are a few examples from my academic experiences, and then I’ll consider what this means in a church context:

The first few years I taught freshman writing (which I teach every year), the students displayed such a high anxiety about grades that it interfered with the purpose of the class: to improve their writing. A couple of years ago, I set up a contract grading system. Students are guaranteed a certain grade in the class as long as they work hard on their writing all semester and adhere to some other behavioral requirements. At the end of the semester, they turn in a portfolio of revised work that is their single graded assignment for the semester. What I love about the system is that students focus on their writing the whole semester without worrying about grades. When they are given a grade, it’s on writing that they’ve been working on improving over the course of a semester, and it’s usually pretty good. Everyone’s writing improves, and I don’t have to deal with students coming in to my office every week going “I don’t understand why I got a B on this paper. How do I get an A in this class?� Because everyone’s anxiety levels go way down, students are really able to focus on how to improve their writing.

In my literature classes I’ve noticed that students often have a negative response to a text, but feel like they have to pretend to like it or the teacher will hold it against them. When this happens, there is a disconnect between their experience of the text and how they’re discussing it, which means that they’re less likely to learn from any discussions we have about the text. I don’t let my students have class sessions where they only talk about what they like and dislike about texts because that is not what I’m there to teach them. But I allow them to say “the Transcendentalist essays were crazy and overwhelming� because then we can have a conversation about what they might be doing textually that’s making the students feel overwhelmed. Or if they don’t like Puritan journals, we can have a discussion about how writing conventions and literature has changed over the past few hundred years and how that may be contributing to their dislike of these texts.

Emotion is just as important when we think about teaching and learning in a church context, which was reiterated to me by a couple of bloggernacle posts on church meetings this past week. In the comments on Roasted Tomatoes’ Sunday School post at LDSLF, he reminds us the effect an atmosphere of fear can have on a classroom: “…we have to develop the attitude that a stray remark or an unresolved question isn’t going to destroy a testimony. If we conduct our courses in a climate of fear—fear that a wrong word might be said and therefore that everyone in the room will leave the church—we foreclose the possibility of a meaningful experience for anyone.� Jacob at New Cool Thang talks about passive aggressive tendencies in Relief Society, and how when people are culturally discouraged from conflict as a communication style, we can end up with an equally problematic emotional dynamic.

I’ve thought about the role that emotion plays in church classrooms quite a lot, especially as I’ve thought how to improve my own experiences as a teacher and student. I’ve pondered how to negotiate different emotional styles in a classroom. Some people are more conflict-oriented than others, and if the discussion tends toward one extreme or the other (lots of heated debate, or lots of happy, feel-good statements), a percentage of the class is going to tune out. I’ve thought about how to to negotiate disagreement in a healthy, productive, learning-friendly way, because disagreement is something that can easily derail the emotional dynamic of a class. I’ve thought about how to encourage genuine emotional expression in ways that relieve fears and discourage things like passive agression or fake sympathy.

Ultimately, I think my greatest lesson on emotion and teaching in church settings came from the year and a half I taught Primary. When I first started teaching, the kids were a bit rambunctious, and since I am a very bad authoritarian, my class was a bit rambunctious for awhile. However, I noticed that once they were able to sense how much I cared about them and how much I loved teaching them every week, things began to calm down. Yes, we still did lots of acting out of stories and coloring and playing games (they were 5 years old, and it was the third hour of church). When there is an emotional environment of love and respect, whether it’s in Primary or elsewhere, it’s much easier for learning to occur.

So, what kinds of problematic emotional dynamics have you noticed in church classes? And what can we do (as both teachers and students) do to make the emotional atmosphere of a class more condusive to learning?

13 comments for “The Emotional Component of Learning

  1. Jonathan Green
    September 21, 2006 at 11:46 am

    Seraphine, save this for when you need a statement of teaching philosophy! Without much change at all, this would serve admirably. I think you’re entirely correct that the emotional component of learning is more important than we usually assume. (And my wife and I teaching 5-6 year olds together required more time preparing a primary class than I needed for most of my other courses during the week, maybe because 5-6 year olds are more demanding customers than college students.)

  2. Mark Butler
    September 21, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    I think one thing that might be considered here, is in the eternal sense of things, what are emotions for? Now I will be the first to admit that the basis of emotion is an uncreated, eternal, and everlasting part of our eternal spirit-intelligences.

    But there are many other aspects that are incidents of physiology, and like any habit may be disciplined one way or another. To first order approximation, emotions just happen to us, and there is little we cannot blame ourselves for feeling angry for example. But surely we can deal with our emotions in both productive and unproductive ways, magnifying uplifting emotions, and downplaying destructive ones.

    And how can we do this except by correlating emotion with principle (i.e. rational understanding of the way things ought to be)?

    So in its fulness virtuous emotions and virtuous thoughts should go hand in hand – the former leading to the latter, and the latter to the former. Good theology should lead to an increase of love, and an increase of love should lead to better theology.

  3. ECS
    September 21, 2006 at 12:13 pm

    I love this post, S. I’ve often wondered how to discuss difficult issues fraught with emotion, such as rape, with law students. There may be rape victims in my class, and I’m disturbed at the thought that a clinical discussion of the legal requirements for proving whether or not a rape occurred may be too much for that person to bear.

    In a Church context, we too often assume that everyone has a fairly strong testimony and is blessed with a good family with righteous parents. When people are struggling under difficult circumstances, they typically feel alienated or guilty for not measuring up to a standard presented as the ideal. Teachers could be more sensitive and aware that the Mormon ideal is not reality for many people – perhaps by tailoring the lessons and discussions to emphasize Christ’s love and acceptance, instead of focusing on how we’re falling short in doing our 100% visiting teaching, say.

  4. Sideshow
    September 21, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    I think you’re presenting one end of a spectrum; I bet students learn even less when they are not feeling any emotion and don’t care about the class or what’s being said. However, too much emotion can impede learning, as you state.

  5. Sara R
    September 21, 2006 at 12:52 pm

    This is the lesson I learned from Sheri Dew’s 2001 “Are We Not All Mothers?” talk: “If you love them, they will let you lead them.” Teaching is a form of leading, so it applies to teaching too.

  6. Julie M. Smith
    September 21, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    “Yes, we still did lots of acting out of stories and coloring and playing games (they were 5 years old, and it was the third hour of church).”

    Argh! It makes me crazy that you feel like you must say this apologetically and with a justification at the end. Acting out stories is EXACTLY what five year olds should be doing in Primary–that is the gold standard of teaching in Primary and the teacher who is NOT doing it is the one who should be apologizing and rationalizing.

    Nice post, by the way.

  7. September 21, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    Jonathan, I haven’t written out a formal teaching statement yet since I’m not going on the job market until at least next year, but I plan on incorporating ideas about emotion and affect into my teaching statement. My dissertation is on affect theory (among other things), so it makes sense for me to say “hey, this concept is meaningful for me on a pedagogical level as well.”

    ECS, we discuss rape in my women’s studies classes (as well as a whole lot of other emotional stuff), but I think it helps that we’re discussing the topic in the context of women’s experiences. I can imagine it would be a lot harder to teach a subject like that in a law class. And as a person who has strong neurotic tendencies, I really like what you have to say about teachers trying to be sensitive to the anxieties and struggles students may be carrying with them into the classroom. :)

    Sideshow, in my mind boredom or disinterest is a type of negative emotion (as opposed to the more positive emotions of pleasure or excitement, both of which are ideal emotions to have in learning environments. Anyway, what I am trying to say is that you are definitely right to point out that it’s a problem that interferes with learning.


  8. September 21, 2006 at 2:32 pm

    Sara R., I definitely think we can draw parallels between things said about parenting and teaching. Thanks.

    Julie, looking back on the comment about my Primary class, I realize it came across as more of a justification (i.e. something I feel guilty about) than I meant it to–I really feel pretty good about how my Primary class went. Thanks for the reminder, though.

  9. Tatiana
    September 21, 2006 at 10:11 pm

    What a great post! Yes, getting students in the right emotional frame to learn is crucial, and often takes more time than the concept you are trying to teach. That is, there is often only enough time for the emotional part, and that takes so long that there’s no time left for the other concepts. But it’s still progress made. It’s essential to learning.

    It’s true for me in my life, too, I’ve realized. I can’t learn or grow or improve until I accept that I NEED to, and become open and teachable, and desirous of the learning that will come. Sort of the broken heart and contrite spirit concept, but true in every field, not just morality. Perhaps it’s safe driving or how to make the perfect omelet or whatever. Something like 95% of the effort of learning is the mental work it takes to be in the right state to learn. It has helped me a whole lot to just realize that, and skip forward, mentally open up and ready myself. I get better at this with practice, and I have improved my ability to learn tremendously that way.

    Just as students will say “can we get this over with?” “I’m really tired so let’s hurry” “I am horrible at math, I hate this stuff” “I don’t see why a person needs algebra anyway” “this is useless” etc. and we need to work through all those issues first before we can start on the very first problem, so in my own mental and spiritual journey, I throw up so many barriers to my own progress sometimes too, I realize. When I can see this in myself and train myself to leap those mental (and emotional) hurdles, I can really improve much more quickly. =)

  10. September 22, 2006 at 12:28 am

    Thanks, you all have just improved my chances of actually learning the Russian language. I’ve seen myself here – it’s too hard, I’ll never do it, I’m too old, etc. – and I’m going to try and get myself emotionally ready to learn and see if that won’t help. I can see it in other situations but I never applied it to secular learning before. Thanks again.

  11. Tatiana
    September 22, 2006 at 1:10 am

    Oh, and I read in Scientific American not long ago that studies show that talent or native ability is not nearly as important as exposure or learning in determining how skillful someone can get. There were multiple studies cited, as I remember, but the one that stuck out to me is that, of the people who become professional soccer players worldwide, a large percentage of them were born in the months of the year that would have made them slightly larger and more mature than their teammates growing up. The purely accidental advantage of size or maturity over their peers on the same teams added enough positive reinforcement that they practiced more and played more and so were far more likely to become professional players eventually.

    What that means, particularly in light of what we as LDS know about eternal progression and intelligence and learning accumulating throughout eternity, is that “I suck at that” should have zero weight with us in deciding what we want to learn or be or do. There is nothing I can’t learn how to do. There is no field in which I can’t become as accomplished as the most talented of my peers. It’s humbling to realize that, and exalting too. =)

  12. Eve
    September 22, 2006 at 3:21 am

    since I am a very bad authoritarian

    This is my biggest problem as a teacher. I’m an incurable goof off, and while there’s definitely misbehavior I do not find amusing and can respond to with a terrible swift sword, smart remarks often make me laugh even when they shouldn’t. (I blame my mother for this–I learned from the best.) Also, my brain doesn’t think in an orderly, logical fashion, but rather sprouts thoughts at random which are fascinating only to me, and I have to fight my digressive tendencies. I shudder to think of some of the episodic lectures in which I’ve indulged.

    I like your points about attending to classroom atmosphere, Seraphine. I too find it useful when students say they didn’t like a text because, as you note, we can push from there into specifics–What exactly about it didn’t you like? Why not? What do we expect literature to be like, what do we consider aesthetically pleasing, how does a text fulfill or depart from those expectations?

  13. September 22, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    Tatiana and Dianne, I agree that we can often throw up emotional barriers in our own learning endeavors and that it’s important to think about how to remove them. Thanks for those thoughts.

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