You may know your subject inside out, but to teach well you must engage with the student, argues Alan Mortiboys.
You can get into a lot of trouble by using the word "emotions" in some academic circles. It evokes some startled responses, from a disgusted "don't use that kind of language round here", to a pitying "the poor chap thinks feelings count for something".
In the course of carrying out teaching observations in further and higher education, however, I was often aware that there was something lacking in lecturers' words and actions. That something was not covered by the criteria against which I had to give feedback on the observation session.
Eventually, I realised what was missing. Many lecturers were not tuning in to the feelings of the students. They were ignoring the emotional dimension of learning and teaching. They were not using emotional intelligence. They might be fine as far as teaching skills were defined, but they might not, for instance, speak to any students by name. Some lecturers never acknowledged or even noticed when their students were bored or confused.
I found there was a dearth of written material and courses for lecturers who wished to sharpen their emotional intelligence. I collated some strategies for a publication for the Staff and Educational Development Association and now run introductory workshops on emotional intelligence.
Many academics are still uneasy. I ask them to think about how they distribute their energy when they are preparing to meet a new teaching group for the first time. Is it more valuable, I ask, to plan what they are going to say and structure the content, to prepare materials and plan activities or to find out something about the individuals they will meet to create the right climate?
Many are likely to shy away, thinking it is dangerous ground. "I am not a counsellor or a psychologist and I cannot dabble with others' emotions," they say. My response is: "You are already having an effect on others'
emotions." I have quizzed students about strong negative feelings they have experienced in lectures and seminars. They report feeling annoyed, excluded, intimidated, frustrated and angry. How many lecturers are prepared to acknowledge they may be responsible for these feelings?
No one is asking lecturers to become personal counsellors, just to become more aware of the impact they have on students.
Some people say: "You cannot learn this stuff, you've either got it or you haven't." I used to run an in-service course on counselling skills in education for lecturers and teachers, the content of which relates closely to what is now known as emotional intelligence. As part of some research, I interviewed participants regarding the effect on their practice. One lecturer said: "As a result of the course, I now see my students as human beings." He meant that he was starting to see his groups as collections of individuals rather than characterising by category - first-years, mature or sandwich students. He was not alone. I found many instances of attitudinal and behavioural shifts as a result of this course. Emotional intelligence can be learnt.
Becoming more attentive to individuals does not mean doing so indiscriminately. I recall one lecturer who, after the course on counselling skills, became a "rogue counsellor". If a colleague said to her, "Good morning", she would incline her head to one side, nod attentively and ask, "Would you like to say more about that?"
But what effect can all this have on achievement and retention? Strategies to improve retention often focus quite reasonably on selection procedures, course design, assessment and feedback strategies and student support and guidance. It is easy to overlook the immediate impact on students of their experience in the classroom. When this leaves them feeling that they are fully acknowledged, valued and respected, they are more likely to maintain motivation and engagement in their learning experience.
So much of learning and teaching is still, even if implicitly, driven by Descartes' "I think therefore I am". When you are with a group of students, you have the chance to connect with them beyond the transmission and discussion of ideas and facts. You can influence how your learners feel, which in turn can influence how well they learn. I believe, as lecturers, we should develop and employ emotional intelligence to complement the subject expertise and pedagogical skills that we already offer to students.
If we accept and respond to the powerful effect of students' feelings on their learning, then perhaps it will be time to replace Descartes' words with "I feel therefore I am".
Alan Mortiboys runs a postgraduate certificate and other courses for academic staff at the University of Central England. He is author of The Emotionally Intelligent Lecturer , published in 2002 by the Staff and Educational Development Association.