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How to Use Technology to Harness the Power of Student Emotion


Igniting an emotional connection to content inside the classroom can be a powerful tool for student retention, but intertwining technology and emotion in the classroom can be even more impactful. Flower Darby, senior instructional designer at Northern Arizona University, delves into how faculty can pair technology with course content to foster emotional processing in their students.  

Darby says sometimes students just don’t resonate with content, but technology can overcome this disengagement by evoking a student’s emotion to better learn and retain material. Naturally, many of us are motivated by emotion, so it’s important to elicit positive emotions to hold a student’s focus, which can be done with the help of technology.

Today, faculty can take advantage of numerous technological tools to enliven content for their students in both traditional and online classrooms.

“When we do that, they engage more deeply, they understand better, they get it,” Darby says.

For instance, for those who teach Shakespeare, film adaptations and recordings of live performances can help make his linguistically demanding work resonate with students.

Additionally, Darby indicates that while some professors may think they should have students watch a movie outside of class by streaming it through a learning management system, this is a tactic to reconsider. The group experience of watching a powerful movie or video, such as a TED talk, gives students the opportunity to debrief immediately after watching.

Through powerful and moving media, students will better understand, relate to, and see the relevance of course material. To them, course content won’t resonate as meaningless information but instead may ignite an emotional response that helps them remember it for the rest of the course.

“They’re all kinds of things that students can do with their technology. So take a minute to think about using the technology that we have available in order to design emotions into our classes.”

Flower Darby

Audio is another influential tool. In audio recordings, speakers’ vocal intonations, inflection, pauses, and accents can help guide a story, poem, or book, and allow students to understand and connect to the material. But integrated technology doesn’t always have to be so direct. Teachers can use static images that are pertinent to the course, such as pictures of the aftereffects of major historical events, to evoke an emotional response.

Darby also recommends utilizing video conference solutions, which allow professors to bring experts into their classrooms from anywhere in the world. There are many ways to do this. For example, if students are reading an article, and it seems the author could provide supplemental material, it’s easy to set up a guest lecture using video conferencing technology. Darby says she guarantees students will gain more information from interviewing an individual and better connect with the content they provide.

There are also ways to target students’ emotions via online classes. One way is to incorporate contentious topics that students care about into discussion. Designing discussion forums in a way that allows students to bring their own emotions into the conversation will naturally foster participation, Darby says. It’s important to establish ground rules prior to these discussions, however, so students maintain a sense of respect despite any disagreements.

Overall, it’s important to utilize technology to elicit emotion and keep content entertaining, rather than have students explore content within a framework of boredom. Darby mentions how smartphones can innovate classroom projects, such as creating an advertisement via a smartphone with sound bites or video. Giving students autonomy to regulate their learning offers them an opportunity for self-reflection and improved retention.

“There’re all kinds of things that students can do with their technology,” says Darby. “So take a minute to think about using the technology that we have available in order to design emotion into our classes.”

Darby delves into even more detail in her 20-Minute Mentor program called How Can I Use Technology to Foster the Emotional Processing of Course Content?