Positive emotions lead to higher achievement

Emotions are vital to learning. The way students feel about themselves and about particular educational tasks influences their success. Students tend to avoid tasks they dislike and situations that make them feel incompetent. This avoidance has a spiraling effect that denies kids the opportunity for practice when they most need it. Further, it may be that some learners may not feel sufficiently secure to enable them to make mistakes; hence they may ignore any errors they make or forget about them as quickly as possible. Others may refuse to take the risk of responding incorrectly.  In either case, the self-monitoring strategies so important to learning are impossible without adequate support. Thus, learners’ feelings about themselves and their learning situations can have profound implications for subsequent success.

Classrooms that foster children’s learning are places that are emotionally safe and supportive. This is a good place to start children on their success path. Children’s varied individual strengths are accepted and celebrated because all members of the classroom community are seen as collaborators rather than competitors. A safe, supportive atmosphere encourages children to take risks, and learning involves risk taking. In such an environment, children know that their “mistakes” will not be seen as a cause for ridicule, but rather as evidence of their effort. Viewed as windows into how a student approaches a learning task, mistakes yield information that may be useful in helping learners redirect their attempts in more effective ways. Children in such classrooms are much more likely to try new things, to monitor their own learning, and to seek and give help. They are participants in a classroom community in which all children have the emotional and cognitive support of their peers and their teacher as they learn.

In a positive, low-risk environment for learning, students thrive emotionally and cognitively when the tasks in which they are involved hold meaning for them and where they can see relationships within and across subjects. Thus, purposeful activity and integrated learning experiences foster learning that helps students develop language and literacy and use it to make connections across texts, contexts, and content.

Purposeful activity helps students feel good about what they are doing and promotes learning. Learners succeed when they think they can learn, when they want to learn, and when they see the purpose for learning. Language learning is embedded in a social and cultural context. Children learn language because it has pleasant consequences: expressing oneself, enjoying a good story, understanding others, and learning about the world. Learning is easier when the content is of interest and importance to the learner and when the learning tasks make sense.

We cannot merely consider the learner’s cognitive needs as we attempt to improve learning models, though. Emotional responses precede conscious understanding and are essential for memory and application of learning. Consider the benefits of emotions in the digital age. As reflected in cinema, from “The Matrix” to “Bladerunner” and other popular films, emotions allow us to retain our humanity. They distinguish us from the technology we use and more importantly, are a springboard to commitment and motivation. In other words, feeling leads to thought, which leads to action. In parallel, positive emotions can be elicited during learning in order to increase motivation. A variety of methods such as creating personal interest in a topic, instilling the confidence that it is possible to meet the objectives, eliminating comparison between learners, and making connections to reality are useful for ensuring higher levels of success.

Positive emotions stimulate motivation and lead to higher achievement. Another way that emotions are linked to learning is through emotional intelligence or EI. Understood as the ability to manage emotions and relationships, EI has a direct influence on student success. In her article “Emotional Intelligence Is No Soft Skill,” from the Harvard Business Review, Laura Wilcox writes that  when compared to IQ and technical skills, emotional intelligence makes up nearly 90% of what distinguishes us from others and leads to growth in an educational environment. Every time a student meets learning goals because they followed advice given by a teacher or heard encouraging words from a coach, they experience the benefits of EI. As artificial intelligence increases its presence in learning environments, the need for greater emotional intelligence must be prioritized. Understanding learning as an emotional process is not the opposite of intellect, it is not the triumph of feelings over thoughts. Rather, it creates a unique intersection for both.

Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland teaches at Boise State University and studies at Idaho State University.

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