Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Emotion and learning
What role does emotion play in learning?
In the behaviourism which posed that learning was a process based purely on the stimulus-response mechanism (Phelps, 2006). Essentially, behaviourism considered the learner as a passive subject exposed to external stimuli responding to the conditioning of the punishment or reward system in place. These theories also opposed the need to examine intrinsic factors such as internal mental states and consciousness as a way of understanding behaviour such as learning (Mos, 1999).early years, learning theory widely assumed that learning was a simple process in which an individual processes information in a logical and rational manner (Mos, 1999). This processing of information was considered to be similar to that of the computer processing metaphor (Phelps, 2006). In essence, the information is presented, processed within our brain through a number of simplified processes and then stored for later use or discarded (Mos, 1999). This idea of learning was heavily influenced by the emerging theories of
Over time, thisidea of learning evolved. The advancements in technology and the emergence of neuroscience facilitated a way to closely examine how the brain operates as well explore and identify the internal processes that govern our behaviour (Phelps, 2006). The ability of researchers to link theorised mental processes to neural activity paved a way to a greater understanding of the human brain and the way it responds and functions under a variety of different conditions (Phelps, 2006). Eventually, it became evident that learning was a complex process, and many different factors attributed towards it's success or failure (Fishback, 1998). One of the most important discoveries during this time was that emotion played a significant role in the way we learn (Fishback, 1998). Over the course of time, research substantiated that, without emotion, it was impossible for the brain to facilitate long-term memory formation which is considered the most essential part of learning (Ghaffarzadeh Hassankiadeh, 2013).
The main focus of this chapter is to explore the psychological literature about learning and emotion and to provide a better understanding of the role emotions play in the learning process. This chapter also explores relevant research, case studies and real-life examples to help those reading in applying this knowledge to their own learning experience. The information within this chapter can be applied across different learning experiences, as all people are involved in some form of learning throughout their life. Understanding how to be a more effective learner can serve all people, regardless of the type of learning that they're engaged in whether in school, university, vocational training, playing sports or engaging in recreational activities.
"The brain, a pattern-finding organ, seeks to create meaning through establishing or refining existing neural networks; this is learning. Emotion affects what is learned and what is retained." - Patt Wolfe
Learning in psychology can be defined as a lasting change in behaviour often involving acquisition of knowledge and development of skills through experience (De Houwer, Barnes-Holmes & Moors, 2013). Although learning is often a natural part of life and can go unnoticed, in many instances individuals engage in conscious learning to accomplish a particular goal. For instance, an engineering student will spend time memorising and understanding mathematical formulas to find solutions to mathematical problems. Similarly, an art student may practice their pottery techniques with clay materials and eventually learn how to design a beautiful vase. The journey of gaining knowledge and developing skills is all part of the learning process.
The neural basis for learning
Our brain is sculpted by our personal experiences in life. These experiences shape the way in which our brain operates to store all that we learn (Wolfe, 2006). In neuroscience, learning is considered a part of the process of changing the neural connections in the brain. For learning to occur, the brain requires certain conditions to facilitate neural change in response to stimuli (neuroplasticity) and the ability of the brain to generate new neurons for the creation of pathways and connections (neurogenesis) (Wolfe, 2006). Research has found that in order for these two processes to take place there needs to be a moderate amount of stress within the learning environment (LePine, LePine & Jackson, 2004). Thus, the learning experience must invoke within an individual a sufficient amount of stress for that person to become a learner. The level of stress is often examined by measuring cortisol levels, and the level of cortisol in response to changes in learning environment vary between individuals (Radahmadi, Alaei, Sharifi & Hosseini, 2015). For instance, in asking students to speak up in class, one student may respond with high stress levels and struggle to talk, and another student may respond with moderate level of stress and may perform better. When it comes to stress levels, it is found that a moderate level of stress is optimal for learning, while high or low levels are detrimental to the learning experience (LePine et.al, 2004). At the same time, it is also important for leanersto engage in healthy habits such as sleeping well, eating healthily and exercising regularly in order to promote neuroplasticity and neurogenesis within the brain (Misuraca, Miceli & Teuscher, 2017). Moreover, these habits also help regulate and keep cortisol and dopamine (stress and happiness hormones) levels at appropriate levels and in so promote optimal biological conditions for learning (Misuraca et.al, 2017). In stark contrast, habits such as missing sleep, skipping meals and eating unhealthy food, as well as avoiding regular exercise reduces the capacity of the brain to perform higher cognitive functions that are critical for optimal learning (Fought, Gleddie, Storey, Davison & Veugelers, 2017).
Important cognitive processes
In order for learning to take place, an individual must engage in a number of cognitive processes.First process requires that an individual pays attention to the learning material (McCrudden & Kendeou, 2014). Subsequently, in paying attention, the information flows through the sensory register which then paves a way for the information to be stored in either short or long term memory (McCrudden & Kendeou, 2014). If the information is stored in short term memory, it will stay there only a short time before its either transferred to long term memory to discarded and forgotten (Norris, 2017). When the information successfully moves into long-term memory, it can stay there for an unlimited amount of time, depending on how well it's stored and our ability to retrieve the information at a latter time (Norris, 2017). Our ability to retrieve information is defined as memory retrieval, and the way we store information is part of the encoding process (Huijbers, Schultz, Nannini, McLaren, Wigman, Ward & ... Sperling, 2013).
Emotion and the brain
In psychology, emotion is considered a complex response and a state of feeling that generates psychological and physical changes, which subsequently influences our thoughts and behaviour (Hsu, 2016). When we engage in learning we are required to both think and behave, and because emotion influences these processes, it also plays an important role in influencing how people learn. For instance, it is no secret that most people can recall intense, emotionally charged as opposed to neutral events or mundane information (Mordka, 2016). This can be particularly evident in cases of traumatic events that make a high emotional impact on people (Dore, Mersin, Mather, Hirst & Ochsner, 2016). For example, when people around the world were asked about the September 11 terrorists attacks in 2001, they were able to vividly recall exactly where they were and what they were doing while they were watching the planes crash into the World Trade Centre (Wolfe 2006). This ability to remember and recall specific details during emotionally charged situations, has everything to do with the way our brain is designed to process emotion and influence our learning experience (Mordka, 2016).
Role of amygdala
Amygdala is located near the base of the brain, it's in a form of smaller clusters and their shape often described like that of an almond. This part of the brain is often referred to as the centre of the processing of strong emotion (Uchida, Biederman, Gabrieli, Micco, de Los Angeles, Brown & ... Whitfield-Gabrieli, 2015). Thus when we experience the feelings of pleasure, love, hate, anger and anxiety, it is all because amygdala facilitates the feeling of such emotions (Uchida et. al., 2015). However, amongst it's many functions, amygdala is best known for its activation of the fight or flight response (Killcross, 2000). In examination of fear-related learning, studies have found that the amygdala is highly active and plays an important role in processing and storing information related to strong emotional reactions such as fear (Phelps, 2006). Moreover, in situations where a person has lost function of certain parts of the amygdala, it has been found that although the person understands the situation is potentially dangerous and will result in adverse consequences, they are unable to respond to the situation in an appropriate manner (Phelps, 2006). This has been attributed to the ability of the amygdala to prompt arousal which enhances our ability to respond to a potentially dangerous situation. Thus losing functionality of the amygdala often diminishes the ability to create arousal to such situations that require enhanced attention and a strong response (Phelps, 2006)..
When it comes to learning,amygdala is highly relevant in fear conditioning. In an environments that elicit fear, respondents often experience an increase in blood pressure, stress hormone release and a startle response can be observed (Morris, Ohman & Dolan, 1998). This response is often shaped by the anticipation of adverse consequences following engagement in particular actions (Phelps, 2006). For example, in an experiment, a rat will avoid pressing the blue button, if pressing the button is followed by a mild shock. In the same way, a child will stop trying to touch the stove with their hand, if touching the stove has resulted in a painful burn. In these instances, fear helps both animals and humans learn through strong emotional reactions to avoid adverse consequences (Killcross, 2000). However, research has also found that a person does not have to experience adverse consequences to be able to learn to fear certain conditions (Phelps, 2006). People can also learn through observation and instruction. For instance, research has found that in instructing people to avoid certain situations, the left part of the amygdala becomes active and stores the symbolically acquired fears that are not necessarily experienced by an individual (Phelps, 2006). The storage and processing of instruction can also elicit a fear response through anticipation and imagination without fear conditioning and adverse consequences of real life experience (Phelps, 2006).
Other important structures
Some other areas of the brain also play an important role in the processing of emotion. As a part of the limbic system,hippocampus is one of the most important brain structures when it comes to the formation of long term memory (Hansen, 2017). Studies have found that when there has been a significant damage to the hippocampus area, individuals lose their ability to store long-term memories (Sheldon & Levine, 2016). Moreover, hippocampus has been found to interact with amygdala when it comes to memories associated with strong emotion (Sheldon & Levine, 2016). For example, when a person has experienced a negative experience, such as a car accident, that person may experience a strong emotional reaction of fear when trying to drive following the car accident. Although this person is not in immediate danger, the triggering of emotion related to that memory is due to the communication by the hippocampus and to the amygdala that causes increased arousal and the feeling of fear (Sheldon & Levine, 2016).
Similarly,prefrontal cortex located at the front of the head helps people make decisions during emotionally charged situations (Dixon, Todd, Thiruchselvam & Christof, 2017). This area of the brain is often involved in the planning of complex cognitive behaviour, decision-making and regulation of emotion such as anxiety (Weilbacher & Gluth, 2017). In the case of the person experiencing an emotional response by driving again, prefrontal cortex would play a major role in helping the person in making a decision about continuing to drive or to asking someone else to drive instead. Likewise, hypothalamus is another important region of the brain associated with emotional reactions. In particular, hypothalamus relays information about the physical expression of strong emotion through the limbic system and to the prefrontal cortex region (Silva, Mattucci, Krzywkowski, Cuozzo, Carbonari & Gross, 2016). This negative feedback mechanism facilitates a strong emotional response based on the physical expression of fear that often promotes heightened feelings of anxiety and fear (Silva, et. al., 2016). However, research has also substantiated that left and right sides of the prefrontal cortex serve different types of emotions. The right side is found to be involved with negative emotions, and lights up extensively when examined thought functional MRI (fMRI) technology (Pessoa, 2017). To the contrary, the left side of the prefrontal cortex is more active when people are feeling positive emotions (Pessoa, 2017). Subsequently in learning what stimulates the different regions, it is possible to help people to engage in behaviours that promote positive feelings, and to better cope with negative emotions (Pessoa, 2017).
Learning with emotion
"The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times ... The best moments usually occur if a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." - Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi
It is evident that we are both biologically designed and must learn to work with our emotional states in order to accomplish learning-related tasks. During the learning process, positive and negative emotions influence where we invest our attentional resources (Pekrun, Goetz, Frenzel, Barchfeld & Perry, 2011). When we are consumed by negative emotions it can often lead us to direct our attention towards test-irrelevant thoughts and actions. This can divert our efforts from completing an important task, and can lead to a poor learning performance (Pekrun et. al., 2011). Likewise, more positive emotional states often promote task-relevant thinking and lead to completion of tasks and better academic performance (Johnson, Waugh & Fredrickson, 2010).
The power of positive emotions
Fredrickson's (2001) broaden-and-build theory proposes that experiencing positive emotion opens the individual's mind to the possibility of a variety of thoughts and actions. This subsequently leads to the expansion of attention, facilitates higher levels of thinking, and promotes learning through new experiences (Fredrickson, 2001). This broadening process fosters the building of enduring personal resources, leading to more frequent episodes of positive emotions (Johnson et.al., 2010). As a result, individuals are likely to experience higher levels of happiness, as they immerse in the learning process with a positive emotional mindset (Fredrickson, 2001).
In fact,majority of research establishes the beneficial effects of positive emotion on learning. Positive emotions such as joy, curiosity, awe and pride have all been linked to higher learning performance and academic achievement (Rowe, Fitness & Wood, 2015; Niculescu, Tempelaar, Dailey-Hebert, Segers & Gijselaers, 2016). Each emotion is found to relate to different aspects of the learning experience. In particular, emotions such as joy, curiosity, interest and awe, all promote motivation to learn and contribute to the feeling of enjoyment (Mega, Ronconi & De Beni, 2014). In individuals experiencing these emotions frequently, the feeling of enjoyment persists despite the feeling of frustration during the difficult parts of the learning process (Rowe, et al., 2015).
Interestingly, students can sometimes associate these positive emotions with neutral states such as the feeling of calmness (Rowe, et al., 2015). This has been particularly evident in instances where students feel passionate about a certain subject, have a platform to positively express themselves, and the engagement with others is both interest-provoking and exciting (Rowe et. al., 2015). Such feeling has been depicted by the flow theory, and considers this resulting calmness to be the ultimate end state of a positive learning experience. Csikszentmihalyi & Asakawa (2016) define the calmness as flow, and construe it as a state of mind experiencing complete immersion. People often report feeling completely involved in the task, energetic and experience incredible enjoyment (Rowe, et al., 2015). Notably, the experience of flow is heavily linked to intrinsic motivation (Abuhamdeh & Csikszentmihalyi, 2012). Studies examining brain activity during flow show that the prefrontal cortex (concerned with decision-making and judgement) undergoes a temporary inactivation period (Klasen, Weber, Kircher, Mathiak & Mathiak, 2012). In effect, there is a loss of the feeling of self-consciousness and self-criticism that often fuels extrinsic motivation in learning (Fullagar & Mills, 2008; Klasen, Weber, Kircher, Mathiak & Mathiak, 2012).
On the other hand, not all neutral mental states are found to have a positive influence on learning. For instance, research examining the effect of relaxation and relief has discovered that these emotions often decrease the motivation to learn (Pekrun et. al., 2011). In particular, they have been referred to as de-activating positive emotions, and do not promote attentional arousal necessary for curiosity and interest to develop (Pekrun et. al., 2011). Instead, these emotions re-direct attentional resources towards unrelated-task thinking that promotes leisure (Pekrun, 2006). However, when considering their effect on short and long term commitments, it is found that the feeling of relief following completion of a task is likely to impact negatively on immediate motivation, but has been found to strengthen long-term motivation in the future (Pekrun, 2006).
Impact of negative emotion on learning
Majority of literature examining the role of negative mental states on cognitive processes finds that negative emotions have a detrimental effect on learning (Obergriesser & Stoeger, 2015). In particular, emotions such as anxiety and fear often narrow the learning focus and divert attention towards threat-oriented thinking (Obergriesser & Stoeger, 2015). As a result, a learner suffers because they become engaged in task-irrelevant thoughts and behaviour (Obergriesser & Stoeger, 2015). This off task engagement diminishes the ability of a learner to complete set tasks, and has been linked to a negative impact on mental health including the development of depression and anxiety (Ahmed & Julius, 2015).
Goal orientation theory suggests that this relationship between emotion and learning is heavily influenced by an individual's choice to set either performance-based or learning-based goals in their learning experience (Rusk, Tamir & Rothbaum, 2011). When students set performance-based goals, their focus is mainly on their ability to perform well. In cases when this expectation is not met, they attribute the failure to themselves. This often prompts destructive feelings of self-judgement and shame that lead to decreased feelings of self-worth (Rusk, Tamir & Rothbaum, 2011). On the other hand, when students are setting learning-based goals, even when they perform unfavourably, they often consider that failure as a part of the learning process. And in doing so, students avoid becoming consumed by self-destructive emotions and instead self-reflect on their experience in a constructive manner (Rusk, Tamir & Rothbaum, 2011).
To become a better learner:
In an educational setting, it's important to consider the role of both positive and negative emotions on students' ability to learn. In doing so, learning environments can be improved to promote positive emotions, while providing effective interventions for students dealing with negative emotions (Trigwell, Ellis & Han, 2012). In considering the effect of emotions from both ends of the spectrum, education settings can be improved to ultimately assist learners in boosting their academic performance (Niculescu et.al., 2016). For example, when information is presented in a way that is easy to comprehend by teachers, students often associate the ease of learning with positive emotion. As one study has found, when students were asked to learn fictitious wine names, those exposed to more helpful learning cues reported experiencing positive feelings. Some even believed that the wines that were easier to learn tasted better (Cardwell, Newman, Garry, Mantonakis & Beckett, 2017). At the same time, learning environments that offer support programs such as counselling services and substantial learning assistance provide students with resources that can lessen the effects of negative learning emotions (Trigwell et. al., 2012). Without the consideration of both types of emotions, it is difficult to create an environment that will support the needs of students in entirety, as negative emotions are just as important to consider as part of the learning process as are positive emotions (Trigwell et. al., 2012).
Although emotion was once excluded from the process of learning, it is now well-substantiatedthat its relationship with learning is important and impacts learners in a number of different ways. When it comes to positive emotions, feelings such as joy, pride and curiosity encourage learning and can even lead to extremely satisfying feeling of the calm that is brought about by being in the flow of learning. In understanding the power of positive emotion, it is therefore important for learners to engage in such emotional states, and find ways to incorporate more of them in their learning journey. As for negative emotions, they can diminish learning and lead to self-destructive thinking and behaviour. In understanding the potential risks, learners should aim to regulate their negative emotional states in a manner that puts a focus on the learning experience rather than assigns value on performing ability. In doing so, there will be less focus on self-criticism, and more focus on learning improvement.
- Joy and learning (Book chapter, 2017)
- Recreational learning motivation (Book chapter, 2016)
- Self-regulation and academic learning (Book chapter, 2017)
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- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65e2qScV_K8 An amazing TED talk about the effects of emotion on learning by Jaak Panksepp