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Book Reviews

Review: The Spark of Learning by Sarah Rose Cavanagh

March 23, 2022
ND Learning
spark of learning book cover

By Emily Donahoe

In The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion, Sarah Rose Cavanagh argues that “if you want to grab the attention of your students, mobilize their efforts, prolong their persistence, permanently change how they see the world, and maximize the chance that they will retain the material you’re teaching them over the long term, then there is no better approach than to target their emotions.” 

Accomplishing all this is a tall order, and readers might initially be skeptical that one approach can produce such a wide range of positive outcomes. But Cavanagh makes a persuasive case that a little attention to the science of emotion can help us enhance student learning on a large scale and in a variety of ways.

Cavanagh positions her argument against the widely-held assumption that emotion is antithetical to the highly cognitive work of teaching and learning—an assumption that informed the design of our classrooms for many years and that continues to influence teaching practices in subtle ways. The book dismantles this assumption by showing how emotions are integral to the learning process and by outlining the connections among emotion, engagement, and motivation. 

In Part 1, Cavanagh draws on her expertise in psychology to describe the science of emotion and consider how it operates in our classrooms. In Part 2, she puts “affective science in action,” discussing how to create a supportive and enthusiastic instructor presence, how to mobilize student effort, and how to prolong student persistence by adding emotion to our pedagogical toolkits. A final chapter covers what to do when emotions go awry in the classroom, from instances of test anxiety to the fraught dynamics of group work. 

The Spark of Learning is a useful guide for instructors who are curious about the relationship between emotions and learning or who are just looking to add some “spark” to their teaching practices. It lends itself to deep reading but also works for quick reference: explanations of how we might apply affective science in the classroom are interspersed with “Teaching Practice” boxes that provide quick, practical strategies instructors can implement immediately. 

But perhaps the most compelling aspect of this book is that it practices what it preaches. From personal anecdotes about Cavanagh’s romance with her partner or the antics of a former professor—who possessed “the zeal of a velociraptor”—to fascinating accounts of scientific research and “neuromyths,” The Spark of Learning engages instructors in precisely the way it asks instructors to engage their students: by utilizing our emotions to teach us something new. 

You can find a video of Cavanagh’s ND Learning book talk, along with some additional resources, at this link. You can also read The Spark of Learning online or check it out at the Kaneb Center Library. 

Cavanagh will be at Notre Dame for the second part of the ND Learning Speaker Series on Monday, April 4. Click here to find more information and to register for “Lessons for Building Community from Social Neuroscience.” We look forward to seeing you there!