Concerning How Emotion Influences Learning

Emotion highly influences a student’s learning ability.  Perceived threats will set the amygdala into overdrive, effectively ‘hijacking’ the brain’s attention and functions, and redirecting its focus onto the object of the student’s emotion.

I have tutored young students in fourth and fifth grade in an inner city context, however, the teacher was less than effective in encouraging the students to work on their homework.  One student would be interacting with another in an honest evaluation of how they did with their math work, for example, and the teacher would yell at them from across the room as soon as she heard they were talking, telling them to get back to work.  I saw the student immediately stop his work, mumble something about ‘I was working,’ and then start doodling.  His emotions hijacked his once productive mindset.  The teacher unknowingly embarrassed and shunned the student even while he was doing the right thing.  Do you think the student will be very motivated to work anymore?  Not at all.  So the dejected student feels it safer to merely doodle and be quiet instead of making sure he understood the coursework and did it right.

There is an incident I still remember from before middle school, I think it was 3rd grade, where the class was free to look around the classrooms at some projects everyone had completed.  One of the less honest students suddenly started claiming to the teacher that I had broken, or at least tried to break, their project.  Now, I was already known for being a good, reasonable and hard working student by this time.  However, the teacher, Mrs. Vlasik, didn’t like me very much for some reason.  She chose to believe the trouble-making student and get angry at me for being so irresponsible.  Ever since, for the whole school year, I hated the class, didn’t like the teacher, and did not perform as well in the class either.  I was embarrassed and in trouble for something I did not do, and to make it worse, the teacher accepted the veracity of a ‘bully-like’ student over mine.  I was also never able to get over my dislike of that student even into high school.

These two examples disclose more than the affects of emotions on student learning—they show how teachers are ever presented with opportunities that will either encourage or discourage their students, depending on their decision-making skills, and that, more than anything else, will create the climate for student emotion, and therefore, motivation for learning. As a teacher, will I be like the first example, where classroom management is no more than a stifling dictatorial control? Or like the second example, where the teacher fails to evaluate the situation, desiring only to quell the squeakiest wheel? Or rather, I can choose a better way.

I only have to remember those negative experiences I had during my grade school days to know how quickly emotion can become a part of the classroom, and to know how quickly emotions can affect learning.  This applies to me in two ways: First, I have to be careful not to do anything that would evoke negative emotions in my students, lest I create a barrier for learning.  Second, I have to be aware of my own emotions, and how they can affect my own ability to learn, and my own ability to teach.  An emotional teacher, whether angry, depressed, stoic, or simply unpredictable, will never be able to effectively communicate information to his students, and the students will never feel safe in that environment.

An excerpt from my work during a class titled Learning and the Brain while at Rio Salado College, Fall 2010.

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