If you want students to engage, don’t be afraid to get emotional 

Applying emotion science allows us to motivate students and help them focus, pay attention and connect more deeply, says Flower Darby

February 1, 2021
Crying emotional
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Academics everywhere are struggling with new forms of online teaching brought on by the pandemic. It’s hard, as James T. Walker writes, and we’re fatigued. Our experience has shown that keeping students engaged online is one of the biggest challenges we face, and many are losing hope that it’s even possible to do so at all.

But we have a powerful tool to help us engage online (and in-person) students: emotion science. We should put emotions to work in our teaching, especially in online environments with their unique difficulties. Applying emotion science allows us to motivate students and help them focus, pay attention, remember information and connect more deeply and meaningfully with concepts and ideas, all of which lead to better learning. 

Contrary to popular belief, emotions and cognition are inextricably linked. We in academia have long embraced the notion that the pursuit of knowledge should be cold, rational, logical − no place for emotions in our lofty halls. Recent research proves otherwise. We can’t think without emoting, according to neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang. The two processes are neurobiologically interdependent.

And emotions are powerful. We now know that they grab our attention, motivate our behaviour, help us focus on the task at hand, remember information long-term and promote deeper understanding. As educators fighting what seems like an uphill battle, what’s not to love?


THE Campus resource: How to create human connection when teaching online


So how do we put emotions to work to help students engage and learn? One approach is to present class material and activities in ways that facilitate emotional connections.

For example, you could ask students to read a thorough, well-researched, robust analysis of a current refugee crisis, and it can appear like a dry, unengaging wall of text to online students. But if you include a close-up photo of a toddler, big eyes staring into the camera, perhaps with a scuffed face or torn clothes, you’ll attract and hold students’ focus and attention. Since attention is a prerequisite for learning, it makes sense to deploy tactics that lead students to focus on class material instead of social media, texting with friends or any number of other distractions.

You can also design for emotion in the activities and projects you assign. Remember: joy is an emotion. Creating review games, Zoom class bingo or other fun exercises that relate directly to learning goals is a natural way to keep students engaged.

My colleague teaches pop culture in literature and film, for example. In her asynchronous online class, students engage in a discussion forum explaining which superpower they would choose for themselves and why. Students love writing about their superpowers. No coaxing is required to get them to post and respond in a lively, invigorating conversation. And with a few carefully structured posts, the professor guides them to explore class themes through the discussion: character development, authorial motivation, good versus evil and more.

Of course, you can also create assignments that help students understand the significance of class material in more sobering ways.

I know an advertising professor who tasked his students with creating a marketing plan to advance the work of not-for-profit organisations that strive to prevent domestic violence. Because his traditional-aged students have rarely had personal experience with this issue, they struggled to put meaningful work into their proposals. His remedy? As part of the project, students must now complete one volunteer shift at a local domestic violence shelter. This helps them see the impact of these organisations, buy in to their value and therefore dive into the assignment as having real-world impact on an important societal issue.


THE Campus resource: Pastoral care for students in the digital classroom


Enabling students to see the relevance of their work is another way to apply emotion science to help them learn. Emotions motivate goal-seeking behaviour; when students connect classwork with their daily experience as well as with personal, academic or career goals, they’ll engage more fully and deeply.

Tie class concepts to topics related to the pandemic, racial justice, civil discourse for functioning democracy, climate change or any number of other highly relevant issues today’s students are grappling with. You’ll have their attention. No question.

Or create activities that allow students to discover for themselves how your course relates to their goals. The best example I’ve seen is an assignment in a composition course I taught. Most of my students didn’t see the importance of effective written communication, but this assignment revealed why this skill is worth honing: they had to find someone doing the job they aspired to and interview them about workplace writing. Students were astonished at the amount of writing required on the job, and how important it is to be able to write well − especially those who were aiming for careers they thought would involve little writing, such as law enforcement. Discovering for themselves how important writing was for their selected career path renewed their energy for working in my class.

Applying emotion science has many possible variations. When we put emotions to work in our online (and in-person) classes, we help our students engage more deeply, resulting in better learning. Best of all, when students are motivated and energised, our own teaching batteries are recharged. Emotion science really is a win-win.

Flower Darby is a scholar of equitable and inclusive teaching and learning at Northern Arizona University. She is the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes.

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Great article, love it.

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