What Do Emotions Have to Do with Learning?

| July 6, 2012 | 26 Comments
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When parents and teachers consider how children learn, it’s usually the intellectual aspects of the activity they have in mind. Sidney D’Mello would like to change that. The University of Notre Dame psychologist has been studying the role of feelings in learning for close to a decade, and he has concluded that complex learning is almost inevitably “an emotionally charged experience,” as he wrote in a paper published in the journal Learning and Instruction earlier this year.

During the learning experiments described in his paper, he notes, the participating students reported being in a neutral state only about a quarter of the time. The rest of the time, they were were experiencing lots of feelings: surprise, delight, engagement, confusion, boredom, frustration.

Another counter-intuitive contention made by D’Mello is that even negative emotions can play a productive role in learning. In this latest study, he and his coauthor Art Graesser examined the effects of confusion. They asked their subjects to interact with a computer program featuring

Confusion motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result.

animated agents discussing scientific case studies. The characters sometimes disagreed with each other, and sometimes conveyed information that was contradictory or just wrong. The students were then required to decide which agent’s opinion was correct. Subjects who reported feeling confused by the exercise actually scored higher on a test following the computer interaction, and when presented with new case studies, they were better able to spot the studies’ logical flaws.

Confusion, D’Mello explains, is a state of “cognitive disequilbrium”; we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result. According to D’Mello, engaged learners repeatedly experience “two-step episodes alternating between confusion and insight.” Back and forth, between perplexity and understanding: this is how the learning of complex material happens.

In fact, deep learning may be unlikely to happen without the experience of confusion, suggests a study conducted by another researcher, Arizona State’s Kurt VanLehn. The students in his experiment were not able to grasp the physics concepts they were learning until they had encountered, and surmounted, an intellectual “impasse.”

Still another study, this one led by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, found that students who observed a demonstration in science class understood the relevant concept no better than before—unless the students were asked to predict the outcome of the demonstration in advance. When their predictions turned out to be wrong, the resulting confusion motivated them to consider the concept more deeply, and they learned more.

So important is the feeling of confusion, writes D’Mello, that parents and teachers shouldn’t try to help children avoid it, or even simply accept its presence. They should deliberately induce confusion in learners. Not “hopeless confusion,” of course, which occurs when “the impasse cannot be resolved, the student gets stuck, there is no available plan, and important goals are blocked.” Rather, “productive confusion” should be the aim. It’s achieved by helping the student recognize that the way out of confusion is through focused thought and problem solving; by providing necessary information and suggesting strategies when appropriate; and by helping the student cope with the negative emotions that may arise.

Pretty soon, learners will be experiencing a very different kind of feeling: elation, pride, and the emotion that D’Mello calls “eureka.”

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  • Psolarz

    Awesome – thanks!!!

  • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

    Art Graesser and Sid D’Mello are continuing to make good progress on exploring the role of emotions in learning.  This is work that we started with them about ten years ago.
    You can find a summary of some of our earlier work here:

    “Cognition, Affect, and Learning”

    https://sites.google.com/site/barrykort/home/cognition-affect-and-learning

    • http://twitter.com/darkone Darkone

      Care to add John Keller’s ARCS theory of motivation to that recommendation? It is closely related.

  • Rackerly

    Very important article. Thank you.
    Similarly, social problem solving is complex mental activity and a very important component of building a brain capable of solving all problems including the mere academic.

  • Paul Signorelli

    Felt emotionally charged as I read this summary of another study showing that engagement can facilitate learning. Guess that means I learned something in the process. Thanks for pointing out another great resource for trainer-teacher-learners.

  • http://twitter.com/mwilding Mark Wilding

    Yes – great article about “engaged learners” – It brought to mind Vygotsky’s  ZPD — ‘zone of proximal development,’ and D’Mello cites this in the paper:  “…supports the assertion that students in the state of engagement/flow are continuously being challenged within
    their zones of optimal learning (Brown, Ellery, & Campione, 1998;
    Vygotsky, 1978)”  — Of course, One of the keys to ZPD — is support from an “engaged teacher”.
    – Thank you Annie for this post!

    • http://twitter.com/darkone Darkone

      Mark, could you elaborate on that? I was given to understand is that the ZPD is that gap between what the learner can do and what he/she could achieve with assistance. Forgive me, but I don’t see the relevance here. 

      Really, I’m not trying to be contrary. I appreciate there’s more to the ZPD than what I’ve said and your statement might help shed some light on the areas I’m ignorant of.

  • Liam Terblanche

    My son was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. One of the characteristics being the emotional neutrality/disconnect that they experience in social and academic environments.
    This article correlates with what we’ve seen and experienced. Or am I grasping at straws?

    • carolee

      Liam, if you are grasping at straws, I was doing the same. I have a 29 year old adult son diagnosed with Mitochondrial, Encephalitis, Lactic-Acidoisis, with Stroke-like seizures (MELAS). He has lost a lot of his intelectual ability, and he is trying hard to remember what he lost in a stroke. My son seems to do the same when in social situations, but he talks about returning to college. I hate to sound negative, but I don’t see it as successful, and don’t want to send him into a negative situation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/drcengler Carol Engler

     Emotions, in my view are a critical part of learning. I believe that the neuroscience of emotions  is just beginning to get a foothold in education.  Visit my website on Empathic Education: 
    http://www.empathiceducation.com

    • http://twitter.com/darkone Darkone

      Indeed. The greatest weakness in our education system is that teachers receive instruction only in engaging the cognitive domain (knowledge transfer) to the detriment of the affective (emotional) and behavioural domains. Good teachers transcend that and engage their students.

  • Amanda Randall-Gavin

    Interesting post, thanks for pointing us to it Colin.

  • Lana Epshteyn

    Great article. It adds to an idea that learning has to be interactive. When a student does not relate personally to the material he is she is presented with, most of the times the learning is superficial or becomes a memoralization of foreign concepts. And the feelings of confusion, frustration and the like compell us to find an answer to the problem. Which is when the real leaning occurs — the problem or task is presented and a subject has to personally solve it.

  • brahim Elouafi

    quite insightful

  • Lewis

    I’ve noticed when I’m writing that my worst days – those that are frustrating, infuriating, depressing – are actually my best days. These times are followed by breakthroughs, deeper inspirations, forced out-of-the-box thinking. Your article pinpoints the important role of an experienced teacher. It’s why programs such as Elevated Math or Khan Academy, though in some ways can help teach math without supervision, still needs a classroom teacher or a homeschooling parent to guide shepherd students through the emotions of the learning process.

    http://elevatedmath.com

  • Steven Wright


    In fact, deep learning may be unlikely to happen without the experience of confusion, suggests a study conducted by another researcher, Arizona State’s Kurt VanLehn. The students in his experiment were not able to grasp the physics concepts they were learning until they had encountered, and surmounted, an intellectual “impasse.””

    Wow!!!!!  

    My problem is being too hardlined and trying to make people realize there is a contradiction when they don’t see one.  Sometimes I wonder if people’s Cingular Cortex isn’t properly developed and they cannot detect when two things they are saying fly in the face of each others principles, but I cannot help people reach that “impasse” moment without HURTING THEIR FEELINGS!”

  • Steven Wright

    This is a key insight to the dialectical approach to learning,  that we must reach conclusions through a series of alterations rather than a straight path by announcing the ultimate truth.  I love learning as much as I can about emotions and the brain, they are a key insight that Robert Solomon, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Antonio Damasio, William James, and a few others seemed to notice, but otherwise most people have neglected to take notice in their significance.

  • Sweighart

    Annie, Great article… In fact, it inspired a memory from over a couple of decades ago, and I turned it into a blog that cites yours:  hub.am/NmfLrn

    Thanks for the inspiration,
    Scott Weighart
    Director of Learning and Development
    Bates Communications

  • Chris

    Emotions are absolutely critical in learning, but there are some that could potentially be counter-productive – like boredom and frustration.  SMARTeacher has created a game that uses lie-detector technology to identify both of these emotions in a child and use that data to continually adapt the gameplay. 

    Perhaps we should consider adding an element of “confusion” to promote deep learning…

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