Emotion is inseparable from what we learn because emotion is inseparable from how we learn.
When Pluto was downgraded from its status as a “planet” to a “dwarf planet” in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union, do you remember how you felt? Certainly among astronomers, professional and amateur, the taxonomic shift—which meant that Pluto was no longer one of the planets in Earth’s solar system—the debate was contentious, even emotional. Responses to the change were global and vociferous, built up over years of dramatic arguments and public appeals. The response from most of the public was one of lament, and indeed much of the build-up to the decision among scientists centered on how they thought the general public would respond. “We have a duty to satisfy the whole world” on the status of Pluto, worried one astronomer.
Why such an outcry over nomenclature? This story (which continues, a decade later) illustrates how we humans attach meaning to what we learn, and that how we feel about something we have learned is as important as the framing of knowledge itself. Emotion, in other words, is inseparable from what we learn because emotion is inseparable from how we learn. The Pluto example has attracted the attention of those researching the role of emotion in learning. Research of this type, especially in psychology, is relatively recent, and gaining ground in the last couple decades. An entire book series is devoted to it; there is an encyclopedia devoted to the cognitive psychological approaches. Even the U.S. Department of Defense has recognized the importance of understanding learning and performance assessment in the context of emotion, as evidenced by an RFI from DARPA in 2012 seeking proposals on “Full Spectrum Learning.”
Insights from the different fields remain fairly broad, however, and point to questions that need further attention rather than provide specific techniques or theoretical approaches that might be immediately applicable to instructional design. We might sum it up this way: emotions are critical to how we learn, how we remember, how deeply we absorb new insight or knowledge, and how we retain what we learn. Yet sometimes contradictory emotions experienced by learners (the “affective dynamics” of learning) can be beneficial in different ways. Many learners are emboldened, and their training more effective, if they receive consistently encouraging feedback, or find pleasure simply in the act of learning. Other learners, in different types of training, might respond more positively to correction or "failure," needing a different kind of incentive to stay focused and motivated. What's clear is that with current approaches it is nearly impossible to account for the various types of learners, in different initial affective states, responding in different ways to the same delivery of content.
What I think can be learned from the current research is two-fold: first, design of delivery systems needs to continue on the trajectory of customization to individual learners, and responsiveness to learner feedback (including live affective data, as new technologies make that possible). Second, the learning environment, conceived and maintained by designers, instructors, and managers, needs to be structured in a way that allows for responses to shifting emotional dynamics. The framing of individualized performance and training via elearning methods, for instance, might be attentive to the kinds of anxieties or enthusiasms that could be created at the outset. Some research suggests that independent elearning and performance support situations are optimal for carefully tuning the specific skills and knowledge to individuals, so as to avoid the boredom of training below skill levels, or the anxiety of training above.
We invite comments, insights, or examples of ways emotions play a part in learning. How has something like the emotional responses to the downgrading of Pluto made an impact on a learning initiative you've been a part of?
Morris Davis, PhD, is an Associate Professor at Drew University and Senior Learning, Performance, & Design Consultant to Ontuitive. Twitter: @morleydj.