Emotions Matter in Teaching

I define engaged learning as when students are cognitively, motivationally, and emotionally involved in the learning process. Emotions are essential to learning, and as teachers, we need to acknowledge emotions in the classroom and use them as a tool.

Acknowledging Emotions

Academics and scientists especially are trained in the idea of objectivity. We prize logic and rationality, which makes it seem like emotions have no place in our work and especially not when we are teaching in our discipline. But emotions are an essential part of being human. Also, don’t you love your job? Aren’t you a teacher because you have a passion for your field and want to pass that on to your students? Ignoring emotions means stripping meaning and value from your work, which can leave students asking, “So what?” Ignoring emotions also means glossing over the frustration that occurs in the lab and the excitement of overcoming a challenge. In short, without emotion students don’t understand what our work is really like.

There are several ways to acknowledge emotion in the classroom. The first is to prepare students for a reading or assignment that will be challenging. Many students, especially those with a fixed mindset, believe that difficulty means they are not smart or made for the field, when in fact confusion and frustration are part of the process. So I try to prepare students for how they might feel in advance.

Additionally, once we begin discussing in class, I will often start by asking students what they found confusing or surprising. When I teach about privilege and oppression, I might also ask what made them angry or sad. Often, students’ emotional reactions are due to a cognitive conflict — the world is not how they believed, and that causes a reaction. Only by acknowledging the emotion can we dig deeper to the core belief. If I went with the standard of pretending emotions have no place in the classroom, then my students might get stuck–they don’t know what to do with their emotion, so they ignore it or attribute it to me and my class being stupid or irrelevant. In either case, we miss a learning opportunity.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to manage unexpected emotions. Maybe something is happening in a student’s personal life, or that one student is really getting on everyone’s nerves, or you have an activity that just isn’t going as planned. We’ve all been in those classrooms, and you feel when something is going wrong. When you can acknowledge emotion, you don’t have to keep barging along. You can pause. You can ask what’s going on or if people want a break. Sometimes people will want to get into it, and it’s your choice how much you want to explore, but sometimes people just want to move on. They didn’t realize they were distracted, but now that you’ve brought attention to it, they can shift their mindset. Even still they will appreciate that you noticed and that you asked. They will appreciate that you allowed them to be their full selves in your classroom.

I get it, emotions can be uncomfortable and scary, especially since young college students are often immature. So I’m not advocating for the open sharing of emotions in class. Instead, you should think about how you want to give space for emotions in your classes. You can also plan to use emotions as a tool for learning.

Using Emotions as Tool

I began to appreciate the power of intentionally evoking emotions as a facilitator in the Intergroup Dialogue Program at the University of Michigan. Many of their activities involve some sort of simulation followed by a discussion. For example, when teaching about privilege and oppression, one activity has students in groups building a city out of paper. However, some groups have more materials and are given more time and space than other groups. It’s enormously frustrating to be in one of the less privileged groups. The discussion then starts at that point — what were you trying to do, and how did it feel? Once we explore the feelings that arose in the simulation, we can draw parallels to the feelings that people who are less privileged in society (by social class and race, for example) have. Of course, the analogy always breaks down at a point, but I have found it’s usually effective as an entry point. Many students have only thought about privilege and oppression in the abstract (if they’ve thought about it at all), so giving them a real-life, emotional taste breaks down the abstraction. Even students from less privileged groups can recognize the feelings or, if they were in the higher status group, gain a new perspective.

Students cannot learn without some reference to themselves, and emotions are an easy connection we can draw on. An often recommended way to bring in emotion is to start with a fun or interesting fact at the beginning of a lecture. But the emotional connection can be deeper as well: We can assign students to apply the methods of our discipline to a problem they care about. Active learning techniques often emphasize student choice, but they don’t always give guidance on how to make those choices. One of my most memorable college assignments was a Freudian analysis of the Wizard of Oz. My group chose the topic, but I thought it was the silliest thing I had ever done and dropped out of the English major as a result. The assignment felt meaningless and I could not see myself going into a career working on silly things when I wanted to help people. If someone had helped me to see how literary analysis helps us understand the human condition, I might be an English professor today instead a psychology professor who teaches classes on the Hunger Games!

I hope it’s clear that using emotion as a tool means drawing on both positive and negative emotions in class. It also means that you are not doing an emotional free-for-all but guiding students along a planned path in order to generate learning opportunities. When we see emotions as a distraction to learning, we miss opportunities to create learning.

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