You are halfway through term and the weather’s miserable. You don’t want to be there. They don’t want to be there. It’s a case of heads down and crack on through the curriculum.
Or maybe not. Use a bit of emotional intelligence and the scenario could be quite different, according to Colin Beard, a national teaching fellow and specialist in experiential learning. He suggests that when you sense students are at a particularly low ebb, you should send them to a café, tell them to switch off their mobile phones, put their feet up and read the papers. When they return to the classroom they should answer a question — how is wildlife treated in the popular media, say. But the general idea is to give them permission to read, to relax and to “open up emotional space”.
Alan Mortiboys, author of Teaching with Emotional Intelligence , says the process of learning is bound up with the emotions — with struggle, frustration, thrill — so teachers need to acknowledge this and work with it.
A teacher who uses emotional intelligence, he argues, is more likely to develop a state in his or her students that is conducive to learning. And he suggests that while some teachers use it intuitively, it can be learnt and should be recognised and given a greater share of teaching energy.
Part of it involves paying attention to the physical environment: whether students are comfortable, can see properly, are too hot. Then, think about what you are going to say when you enter a lecture room and when you leave it, suggests Beard. How are you going to open up space in and around the lecture?
“A lot of it is about relaxing a bit and acknowledging that you are a human being like all the people staring at you, and not just geared to the curriculum,” he says.
Mortiboys says that it can be useful, on occasion, to reveal your feelings to the students, perhaps about the subject — or, for instance, when you are a little anxious because you are trying out a teaching method you have not used before.
Susan Hallam, professor of education at the Institute of Education, says using jokes or giving personal information can be effective. But most important is to understand students as human beings too; to think about what is likely to engage their interest and relate your teaching to their own lives.
An important element of this is knowing yourself and acknowledging your own emotions. “Sometimes you can react to people in ways that are related to things that have happened to you in the past,” says Hallam. “The focus needs to be on the student and what’s best for them.”
On the other hand, sometimes emotional intelligence may come down to acknowledging when you can no longer cope with the demands put on you, she says.
Nicola Yuill, senior lecturer in psychology at Sussex University, says: “I think a lot of it is to do with academics looking after themselves and being happy about what they are doing.” If you aren’t happy, and the frustrations of university life are getting you down, try to do something about it, she advises.
Hallam concedes that it is much harder to employ emotional intelligence in a packed lecture room. But the key is to watch. “You can see if students are going to sleep or are nodding their heads in agreement,” she says. “You should be aware of their reactions to what you are doing, and if they are reacting badly, do something about it.” If things aren’t going well, try asking a colleague, or some of those attending the lecture, what is going wrong, making sure that you are emotionally robust enough to take their criticisms.
Mortiboys says it is important to find out about students’ expectations the first time you meet a class and to explain whether these will be met — and, indeed, what your expectations are. Otherwise, students may feel frustrated and anxious as a result of their misplaced assumptions.
Acknowledging individuals in a group — at least through eye contact or preferably remembering names — is essential, he says, as is body language. Try to watch yourself on video, consider the effect your body language is having on the students and, if necessary, modify it. Then respond to what students do and say rather than simply ploughing on with the session you had planned. If a student asks a question that reveals they have missed the point, you have to deal with it in a way that makes clear their misunderstanding but does not put them off asking further questions.
Beard, who has surveyed 500 students about their feelings, says they experience a rollercoaster of emotions during their time at university, to do with relationships, achievement, friendships, homesickness and so on. But he says that while these will vary from student to student, the times of year when they are likely to feel up and down are relatively consistent. A common down period, for example, is a few weeks into the first year when reality is not quite living up to the glossy prospectus, they are missing home and have to hand in an assignment. This is when they may be vulnerable and you may need to offer support, he says. You need to find some way of creating emotional space so you can talk to them about what they may be feeling and let them realise they are not on their own.
But don’t go too far, warns Janet Aldridge, chair of the Association for University and College Counselling. “Many academics are very concerned for their students and may try to help beyond their abilities,” she says. It is important to know when to call in other agencies.
Beard says that with all today’s pressures on students, lecturers need to help them discover the intense orgasmic rushes that learning can engender and try to recall that orgasmic rush themselves. Students can tell if a lecturer really doesn’t want to be there.
Teaching with Emotional Intelligence by Alan Mortiboys (Taylor and Francis, 2005)
The Power of Experiential Learning edited by Colin Beard, John P. Wilson and Dominic Irvine
(Kogan Page, 2002)