Harness the Power of Emotions to Help Your Students Learn

Professor smiling, students hands raised

I’ve been thinking a lot about emotional presence in our online and face-to-face classes. There seems to be an enduring sense that emotions have no place in the lofty halls of academia. Our pursuit of knowledge should be rational, detached, unaffected by such trivialities as our emotions.

But I don’t think that’s right. Our emotions are a central part of our humanity. To deny them is to deny the essence of who we are. In fact, not only should we not try to separate emotional responses from learning, but we can’t, according to recent neuroscience research.

It was previously thought that emotion and cognition activated separate areas of the brain, but recent findings show that multiple areas involved in emotional responses and cognitive processing are all active at once. Since it’s impossible to exclude emotion from cognition, why not take advantage of the power of emotions instead?

I recently read an interesting book on this topic: The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion, by Sarah Rose Cavanagh (2016). In it, Cavanagh presents a compelling argument for the deliberate inclusion of emotions in the design of our classes. I’d like to reflect on a few of my takeaways and some practical ways of targeting our students’ emotions in our classes.

Think about it. Emotions are powerful. Emotions grab our attention and keep our interest. Emotions motivate us, inspire us, and move us to action.

We connect, understand, and remember things much more deeply when our emotions are involved. Just think about the impact of seeing a photo of a wounded refugee child, as opposed to reading a fact-filled analysis of the crisis itself.

So, if emotions have this much ability to affect our understanding, why try to keep them out of our classrooms? It just doesn’t make sense.

Instead, let’s consider intentional ways of bringing emotions into our teaching and learning experiences. How can we harness the power of emotions to help our students connect with, learn, and retain our material more deeply?

Designing for emotion

There are lots of ways we can design for emotion in our classes. Here are some strategies that are useful whether you’re teaching in person or online. Let’s consider how these approaches might improve your students’ ability to learn.

Regardless of the format or the subject of your class, be aware of the impact that you and your emotions can have on your students’ interest and motivation to learn and engage. You can make a big difference with a deliberate effort to be enthusiastic, positive, and optimistic about your students’ success.

I think sometimes we get a bit bored with courses we have taught for a long time. Look for ways to reinvigorate your passion, and then share that passion with your students.

By the same token, share bits of yourself with your students. Bring personal examples and stories that illustrate concepts. Share why you went into your field in the first place. Relate topics to current events that caught your interest, and you’ll catch the interest of your students too.

Here’s another idea: strive to be likeable. No, college isn’t a popularity contest. But it sure doesn’t hurt if your students like you. They’ll be more motivated to attend class and actually pay attention if they like and respect you. And that can’t hurt, right?

So how to do this? Smile. Make eye contact. Empathize with your students. Ask them how their day is going, or their week. Ask after that big exam they had in another class. Basically, develop and convey a supportive and encouraging attitude. Showing your students that you like and care for them can significantly increase their liking for you—which helps them to show up and learn.

You can also create emotional connections to content by leveraging music or video. Play an evocative video or song that relates to the day’s topic. Show a moving image to help students understand or better connect to a class concept. Play an audio recording of a poet reading the assigned poem or a video of a Shakespeare play. These techniques help bring your material to life in an impactful way.

Another way to tap into the emotional elements of learning is to give students some control over their learning. When you give students choices, it’s likely they will have greater interest in their task. This will increase their motivation to complete it. Can students choose from a range of assessments or topics? Can they help decide on some of the grading criteria or class policies?

Similarly, make activities as valuable as possible for students. Show the relevance to personal, academic, and career goals to ignite enthusiasm and interest. And encourage “flow”—that state of total concentration such that the sense of self is immersed in the process—by creating assignments that hit that sweet spot of desirable difficulty.

There are so many other ways of including emotions, targeting emotions, even simply acknowledging that they exist in our teaching and learning processes. With a little thought I am sure you will find ways to harness the power of emotions in your own classes.


Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Flower Darby is a senior instructional designer at Northern Arizona University’s e-Learning Center. She’s taught English and Educational Technology classes at NAU since 1996, specializing in online and blended courses.

This article will also be featured in the Best of the Magna Teaching with Technology Conference, a collection of articles from some of the top-rated presenters and sessions at the 2017 conference. The author wishes to thank her co-presenter, Kristin Ziska Strange, an instructional designer at Northern Arizona University.  John Doherty, the instructional design manager at Northern Arizona University, also contributed to the session design and content.