Monday, February 25, 2013

Prompting the "learning emotions"

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop put on by Linda Nilson from Clemson University. The aim of Linda's workshop was to identify teaching techniques that, based on extant research on learning and cognition, enhance deep learning, retention, and retrieval.

There was an abundance of rich material in her workshop — some of which I may post about at a later date. But I wanted to share a particularly intriguing suggestion Linda offered concerning the "learning emotions."

We've talked a fair bit at ISW in the past about the role of emotions in learning. I've become convinced beyond a doubt that (a) learning is as much about emotional regulation as it is cognitive performance, and (b) we teachers tend to emphasize the latter over the former, thereby neglecting the fact that learning requires not only that certain cognitive structures be in place, but also that certain emotional (i.e., motivational, attentive, etc.) structures be in place. Put simply, no matter how fantastically we provide the cognitive structures needed for learning, students who are indifferent, afraid, anxious, etc., will struggle to learn.

In her workshop, Linda offered the following list of "learning emotions." These are emotions which, when present in a learning situation, are conducive to effective learning:
  • wonder
  • fascination
  • intrigue
  • suspense
  • surprise
  • humor
  • challenge
  • compassion
  • minor stress or mental discomfort
  • mild anger
  • mild sadness
Linda emphasized that these last three need to be properly dosed: they help learning in small amounts, but "major stress, trauma, or anxiety" undermine learning.

I found this list enormously helpful in thinking about the psychological mindsets that we might induce in students to help them learn. What I'd be curious to know from other teachers and readers is how to instill the learning emotions when teaching philosophy. In other words, what are some specific techniques we can use to prompt, say, wonder or mild mental discomfort? And once we've done that, how do we follow up so that these emotionally fecund moments actually lead to learning? What do you do to "emotionally manage" the students you teach?

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