Let’s think back to the day you wanted to learn a new skill, for example, roller skating. You have always wanted to learn to roller skate and you gathered the courage to do it last weekend. 

On the way to buy your new skates, you got into an argument with a stranger about a parking spot, and that left you frustrated. You ignored your frustration, purchased new skates, and drove to your friend’s place who was going to teach you the art of skating. You knocked on your friend’s door, waited for a few minutes, and called your phone. She answered the phone in a sleepy tone and asked you to wait for a few minutes for her to get ready. You were annoyed and kept pacing impatiently. 

Before you started your learning journey, you experienced multiple emotions. Some positives like the excitement of buying new skates and some negatives like the argument and your friend who kept you waiting. 

Do you think your emotions would have impacted your learning experience? The answer is yes. If you said no, it is because we are conditioned to think that learning is a rational process and our mood and emotional state do not influence the journey. 

In this blog, we will uncover the role of emotions in learning and uncover how to actively use emotions to learn better. 

What is an emotion?

Emotion is “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral and physiological elements”.

American Psychological Association (APA)

For the longest time, we have assumed that emotions influence our social behavior and have very little or nothing to do with our cognition

Three highlights about the role of emotions in learning:

  • Research has shown that emotions, positive or negative, have a direct impact on learning and memory. Interestingly, negative emotions such as anxiety, failure, boredom, etc can accelerate learning through effort management. Negative emotions can be turned upside down and utilized as a kneejerk reaction toward learning. 
  • The emotions of the environment matter as much as the learner’s. If you are learning with an instructor, peer, or a group of friends; their emotional states have a direct impact and influence on your learning. Research has revealed that in elementary classes, teacher burnout had a direct impact on the students’ cortisol levels. While the research points towards young learners, I believe this is relevant to adult learners. 
  • Emotions influence memory, and our ability to retain and apply new or reformed information. For example, a highly engaging lecture or an exciting classroom project will be remembered more fondly and retained for a future application over a learning experience that does not stir emotion. 

How do we actively use emotions to learn better? 

Emotions are unavoidable and instead should be utilized to enhance learning. While we cannot curate our emotions to feel positive before every learning moment, three tactics might help:

1. Get your groove on

Music and some form of physical activity are known to be a great bridge from a previous state of emotion to the next. A few jumping jacks, listening to your favorite tunes, or a quick run are powerful. These won’t help forget the state of emotion but emotionally charge and direct you toward your learning experience. 

2. Give yourself a pep-talk

This might sound cheesy but it is a fool-proof way of building the courage to learn. Research has shown that pep talks help with emotional regulation and keeping emotions in check. 

3. Dig deeper into the ‘Why’

While the first two tactics are steps to create space between your emotions and the learning experience, it is as important to understand and build awareness. Ask yourself – Is the emotion rising from the learning experience or an external factor? Once you have an answer, it is relatively easier to utilize emotions to learn better. 

Unlearning Thought

Emotions are the corner puzzle pieces in learning. Align the corner pieces first and let the puzzle unravel.