Skip to content
Notes on Teaching and Learning

Enhancing Student Learning with Emotion

February 3, 2022
ND Learning

By Haley Dutmer

Imagine this…It’s week 1 of your class and you want to encourage your students to really listen to each other during discussion. What can you do to effectively convey this information and facilitate better learning outcomes? 

In my Philosophy of Education course that I’m teaching this semester, I had two ideas:

  • Option 1: Ask students what it means to be a good listener. Have students discuss in small groups, then regroup as a class and come to a common understanding of what good listening in the classroom looks like.
  • Option 2: Post the following Old English Proverb on the board: “Children should be seen and not heard.” Next, ask your students to draw what a classroom looks like where students are seen and not heard. Then, have your students flip their paper over and draw what it feels like to be seen and not heard. Have the students pick which drawing they want to share, and have everyone walk around the classroom and appreciate each other’s drawings. Finally, discuss the experience together, as well as what the experience brought out about the importance of listening and being heard.

While both options have pedagogical strengths, I picked option 2 because I didn’t just want my students to think listening was important, I wanted them to feel it. 

By evoking emotion in my classroom, my students became quickly and deeply engaged. Their drawings depicted the weight of what it feels like to be ignored and discounted. This compelled my students to seek out clarity on how to make others feel heard. About the activity, one student wrote: “I truly don’t think I have seen a more efficient way (in terms of time) and effective (in terms of the depth one was able to portray their thoughts openly) in a classroom before, ever.” 

It may seem antithetical or impractical to encourage and stimulate emotion in the classroom. Emotions, it’s often thought, can be distracting or misleading–steering us further from our course learning goals and the pursuit of the truth. But in The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion Sarah Rose Cavanagh explores how emotion can be an asset, rather than a detriment, to learning in the classroom.

Earlier this month, Cavanagh gave a book talk at ND Learning about The Spark of Learning and she highlighted some ways emotion can efficiently and effectively be used to engage students, promote problem-solving and help-seeking behavior, enhance memory, and promote students’ sense of belonging and community.

In this post, I’ll highlight some key points from Cavanagh’s presentation. First, the idea that emotions can be relevant or extraneous to learning. Second, some practical suggestions for how instructors can promote relevant emotions that enhance learning in their classrooms. 


Relevant v. Extraneous Emotions

To be clear, emotions don’t always lead to better learning outcomes. Emotions can be distracting. Cavanagh notes that emotions like anxiety, fear, sadness, shame, hopelessness and frustration can overwhelm students, draw away their attention, and lead to avoidant or resigned behavior and burnout. If you are concerned your student’s emotions may be seriously impeding their learning, please refer them to campus resources that can help such as the University Counseling Center, Care and Wellness Consultants, and the McDonald Center for Student Well-Being .

Emotions like excitement, curiosity, joy, empathy, hope, and wonder, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect–they can draw students in and motivate them to engage with the course, seek help and face challenges through problem-solving and collaboration.


Emotional Hooks

One way Cavanagh suggests evoking learning-enhancing emotions in the classroom is through “emotional hooks.” Grab students’ attention by evoking curiosity in a course topic with an interesting, relatable example, story, case study, or puzzle. Or, relay the relevance and human dimension of a topic with a story that evokes empathy, hope, or passion for finding a solution to a real-world problem.


Climate Matters

Cavanagh also emphasizes the importance of course climate on student engagement and learning. When a course has a warm climate, students feel more comfortable expressing their ideas, exploring questions curiously, and challenging themselves out of their comfort zone. In cold course climates, students are more likely to not feel comfortable expressing their thoughts or questions, feel threatened, hopeless, and isolated. 

Little things can make a big difference to the course climate. For example, trying to learn your students’ names and encouraging students to attend office hours conveys care. Having in-class opportunities for collaboration and discussion can help students facilitate supportive connections.


Passion is Contagious

Finally, Cavanagh reminds us that all else aside, when instructors simply convey their own enthusiasm and curiosity, students’ positive emotions follow suit. If an instructor acts bored, the students are likely to be bored. If an instructor acts closed-off and hostile, students will likely close off as well. If, on the other hand, an instructor conveys excitement through their body language, vocal tone, and eye contact–both in course topics and in students’ contributions to discussion–this draws students into the conversation. 

Has this post sparked your interest in integrating emotion into the classroom? Cavanagh will be returning to campus later this semester and we’d love for you to join us! To register for the Lessons for Building Community from Social Neuroscience Workshop with Sarah Rose Cavanagh click here.



The Spark of Learning: Book Talk with Author Sarah Rose Cavanagh – ND Learning.

How to Make Your Teaching More Engaging – Sarah Rose Cavanagh – California State University Long Beach

Mental Health and Academic Success – ND Learning

Helping Students in Distress: Tips for Faculty and TAs – ND Learning

Creating and Maintaining Community – ND Learning

Stimulating Curiosity Using Hooks – Kentina Smith – Noba Blog