Enhancing Student Learning with Emotion

When we educators fail to appreciate the importance of students’ emotions, we fail to appreciate a critical force in students’ learning. One could argue, in fact, that we fail to appreciate the very reason that students learn at all. – Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio, “We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience on Education”

What can you do to effectively engage students, convey the importance of course content, and facilitate better learning outcomes? Maybe, instead of focusing on how we can get students to think a topic is important, we should start directing some of our attention to how we can help students feel it is important.

It may seem antithetical or impractical to encourage and stimulate emotion in the classroom. Emotions, it’s often thought, can be distracting or misleading–steering us further from our course learning goals and the pursuit of the truth. But in The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion, Sarah Rose Cavanagh explores how emotion can be an asset, rather than a detriment, to learning in the classroom.

In this post, I’ll highlight some of Cavanagh’s key points and practical suggestions for how instructors can promote and harness relevant emotions that enhance learning in their classrooms.

Relevant vs. Extraneous Emotions

To be clear, emotions don’t always lead to better learning outcomes. Emotions can be distracting. Cavanagh notes that emotions like anxiety, fear, sadness, shame, hopelessness and frustration can overwhelm students, draw away their attention, and lead to avoidant or resigned behavior and burnout.

Emotions like excitement, curiosity, joy, empathy, hope, and wonder, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect–they can draw students in and motivate them to engage with the course, seek help and face challenges through problem-solving and collaboration. To mobilize these relevant emotions, Cavanagh suggests instructors use emotional hooks in lectures to grab attention, cultivate a welcoming classroom climate, and express passion in the course subject matter.

Emotional Hooks

One way Cavanagh suggests evoking learning-enhancing emotions in the classroom is through “emotional hooks.” Grab students’ attention by evoking curiosity in a course topic with an interesting, relatable example, story, case study, or puzzle. Or, relay the relevance and human dimension of a topic with a story that evokes empathy, hope, or passion for finding a solution to a real-world problem.

Climate Matters

Cavanagh also emphasizes the importance of course climate on student engagement and learning. When a course has a warm climate, students feel more comfortable expressing their ideas, exploring questions curiously, and challenging themselves out of their comfort zone. In cold course climates, students are more likely to not feel comfortable expressing their thoughts or questions, feel threatened, hopeless, and isolated.

Little things can make a big difference to your course climate. For example, trying to learn your students’ names and encouraging students to attend office hours conveys care. Having in-class opportunities for collaboration and discussion can help students facilitate supportive connections.

Passion is Contagious

Finally, Cavanagh reminds us that all else aside, when instructors simply convey their own enthusiasm and curiosity, students’ positive emotions follow suit. If an instructor acts distracted, the students are likely to be bored or distracted themselves. If an instructor acts closed-off or hostile, students will likely close off as well. If, on the other hand, an instructor conveys excitement–both in course topics and in students’ contributions to discussion–through their body language, vocal tone, and eye contact, this draws students into the conversation.

In sum, emotions don’t always need to be tamed in the classroom. Learning can be promoted by stimulating feelings or passions, resulting in efficiently and effectively engaging students, promoting help-seeking behavior, and promoting students’ sense of belonging and community.


  • “We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education,” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio, 2007
  • The Spark of Learning Reprise with Sarah Rose Cavanagh – Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast #204
  • How to Make Your Teaching More Engaging – Sarah Rose Cavanagh – California State University Long Beach
  • “Mental Health and Academic Success in College” Eisenberg, Golberstein, and Hunt, 2009
  • Stimulating Curiosity Using Hooks – Kentina Smith – Noba Blog
  • “The Effects of a Warm or Chilly Climate Toward Socioeconomic Diversity on Academic Motivation and Self-Concept,” Alexander Browman and Mesmin Destin, 2015
  • Teach Teachers How to Create Magic - Christopher Emdin – TED@NYC
  • “The Importance of Teachers' Emotions and Instructional Behavior for their Students' Emotions – An experience Sampling Analysis,” Becker, Goetz, Mother, and Ranellucci, 2014

Haley Dutmer
University of Notre Dame
ND Learning | Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence