Emotional events are memorable events.

This is why the memory palace mnemonic device works so well. It combines the emotions of storytelling, absurdity, and vivid imagery into a sequential narrative structure.


"Substantial evidence has established that emotional events are remembered more clearly, accurately and for longer periods of time than are neutral events." - The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory

"Emotional events often attain a privileged status in memory.

...Memories for stressful and emotionally arousing events benefit from moderate doses of adrenaline and cortisol released acutely at the time of encoding. These effects have been linked to amygdala function in human and non-human animal studies.

...By contrast, chronic stress or high levels of acute stress hormones impair memory retrieval and hippocampal function, as exemplified by post-traumatic stress disorder.

...Encoding of emotionally arousing events recruits amygdala activity and elicits greater functional interactions between the amygdala and medial temporal lobe memory regions, which result in enhanced long-term memory." - Cognitive neuroscience of emotional Memory

Emotions have the power to enhance learning as much as they do to detract from it. George Orwell wrote, “The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions”

Consider emotions as a motivating force that have the power to drive both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated learners under the right circumstances. Leveraging the power of positive emotions like purposefulness or wonder might help whip up the small flames of intrinsic motivation in students or provide timely boosts to extrinsically motivated students.

"Emotions are at your side, guiding your hand in every decision you make, from which three plums to select from a basket of fruit to whether to leave your spouse. It is not hard, then, to suppose that emotions are similarly guiding our students in every stage of their learning, from selecting which courses to take in a given semester to how willing they are to participate in the discussion you're trying to drum up on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving." - Cavanaugh, 2016

Emotions help us capture the attention of our students.

“Activating [student] emotions results in a number of cascading effects in the body and brain, all of which are designed to maximize cognitive and physical performance and make memories stronger.” - Cavanaugh

As our brains were evolving, emotions helped us recognize more carefully what was important to learn and remember from the range of experiences we encountered every day. Terror inspired by a predator helped us better remember to avoid that particular path through the woods; the pleasure experienced while eating that nutritious fruit helped us better remember what that tree looked like and where we might find it again tomorrow. The environment in which we live has changed, but we all continue to face socially, emotionally, and physically threatening challenges and driving pleasures. Our emotional brains continue to operate in these circumstances as they always have: when we feel strong emotions, our attention and cognitive capacities are heightened.

A second line of research in this area, then, suggests that we focus on infusing learning with a sense of purpose, and especially self-transcendent purpose. In How We Learn, Benedict Carey noted first that purposefulness tunes the attention of learners toward things that matter: “Having a goal foremost in mind tunes our perceptions to fulfilling it. And that tuning determines, to some extent, where we look and what we notice” (p. 140). A sense of purpose drives our attention toward certain things and drives it away from other things, just as emotions like fear and pleasure do.

A particularly fascinating new line of research in this area can refine our small teaching work ever further, since it suggests that not all senses of purpose are equal—and that the most powerful forms of purposefulness arise when students see the ability of their learning to make the world a better place. In 2014 a handful of researchers published a long study, wonderfully titled “Boring but Important,” which explored what types of purposefulness most inspired learners to persist in learning repetitive or challenging yet essential tasks for future learning or academic success (Yeager, Henderson, Paunesku, Walton, D'Mello, Spitzer, and Duckworth 2014). The surprising result of this research was that self-transcendent purpose produced the strongest driver for students to persist through challenging academic tasks. Self-transcendent motivation contrasts with self-oriented motivation, which describes a desire to have a great career or enhance one's knowledge or abilities. Self-transcendent motivation describes a desire to help other people, to change the world in some positive way, to make a difference.

Results showed that a self-transcendent purpose for learning increased the tendency to attempt to learn deeply from tedious academic tasks…Students spent twice as long on their review questions when they had just written about how truly understanding the subject area could allow them to contribute to the world beyond the self, compared to controls. - Yeager, Henderson, Paunesku, Walton, D'Mello, Spitzer, and Duckworth 2014

Emotions are social—which helps explain one aspect of the experience I had with my daughter. When I became interested in learning her recital song, she became interested in learning it, too. Borrowing a phrase from Marjorie Keller, this is why Cavanagh calls emotions a contagious fire: they can be catching.

"The enthusiasm of the educators statistically predicted their students' ratings of enjoyment and perceived value in the subject matter" - 2016

Enthusiasm is a way to increase the perceived value of the subject matter.

Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs demonstrated in their book How College Works (2014) the immense power that personal connections and relationships have on the total college experience for students, including the learning that takes place in the classroom. “What really matters in college,” they argue, “is who meets whom, and when” (p. 16). These conclusions stem from a long-term study they conducted on students and alumni at their institution, based on a variety of measures, including interviews, surveys, and analyses of student work. One of the key areas in which they saw social relationships and community as playing an essential role was motivation: “Motivation is crucial…and emotional connections to others and to a community provide the strongest motivation” (p. 106). Students relay their levels of motivation through the amount of effort they put into their studying and assignments, through the ways they talk about their courses, through their classroom behaviors such as speaking (or not speaking) in class or participating in group work. As they do so, they are conveying emotional signals—this subject matters to me; I am enjoying this discussion; this professor is boring me—that their fellow students will catch and respond to. I've learned from my own experience as a teacher that a few engaged and highly motivated students can energize an entire class; a few students openly displaying signs of boredom or frustration can likewise derail one. As Jay Howard has written in Discussion in the College Classroom, “the most important learning and the most effective learning happens through a social process” (Howard 2015, p. 110). Both faculty and students play a crucial role in creating and determining the shape of that social process.

What do you notice? What do you wonder?

Invite curiosity and discussion to form social connections.

When the students see that instructors are actually reading and critiquing their work, they become motivated to work a little harder at their writing—and that harder work pays off in some immediate gains in their writing abilities. As Chambliss and Takacs explained, “What mattered from professors was the sheer fact of paying attention: she took the time; he helped me. Attention says to the student, ‘Writing matters’; but more, it says, ‘Your writing matters’”

Paying attention alone can spur a motivational boost through the power of positive, social emotions.

Technology can help both face-to-face and online teachers create these motivational connections with their students, as Jose Bowen notes in Teaching Naked (Bowen 2012). He urges faculty to use electronic communications and social media to “create communities” and “connect with students” (p. 30). If you have students create brief videos to introduce themselves to the class, make a comment on each of those videos. If they write discussion posts or blogs that do this, make sure you comment on each one, something more than “Welcome to the class!” If you have a class Twitter feed, reply to and favorite student tweets. These communication media can help us recognize students as individuals as effectively as a friendly preclass chat.

"The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories—so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as ‘psychologically privileged,’ meaning that they are treated differently in memory than other types of material. [...] Reading researchers have conducted experiments in which people read lots of different types of materials and rate each for how interesting it is. Stories are consistently rated as more interesting than other formats (for example, expository prose) even if the same information is presented." - Willingham 2014

Stories evoke emotions. They also tend to connect concepts for you.

You can continuously renew and recapture attention with storytelling.

"Organizing a lesson plan like a story is an effective way to help students comprehend and remember. [...] The material I want students to learn is actually the answer to a question. On its own the answer is almost never interesting. But if you know the question, the answer may be quite interesting." - Willingham

"If organizations do little or nothing to emphasize their purposes, aside—for example—from earning profits, internal motives may wither while instrumental motives become ascendant. Small but regular reminders of organizational purpose can keep internal motives dominant…a range of meaningful consequences should be highlighted (e.g., impact on others, mastery)."(Wrzesniewski, 1995)

Figure out ways to drop reminders of your purpose wherever you can.

Constantly sharing and explaining your enthusiasm (with enthusiasm!) is very powerful.

Compassion is also motivating, and a lack of compassion can be demotivating.

“What is the emotional heart of the material I am teaching? And how can I foreground this emotional center to my students?” - Michelle Miller

The more emotion, the better.

The more social, the better. Even emotional, seemingly off-topic discussions can be very valuable.

We need to acknowledge that students are not purely "cognition machines"; they're human beings with emotions, passions, and uniqueness that sometimes distracts them from the objective goals of knowledge acquisition.

"the less pleasant emotions tend to win out when it comes to memory…negative emotions—fear, anger, and so forth—actually accentuate memory" - Miller, 2014

Stirring up outrage over wealth inequality can be effective, as long as we provide a resolution to the negative emotion.


See Also