Emotion: The forgotten factor in learning

by John Hilton30 Nov 2015
People learn more effectively and seek to take ideas further when positive emotion is linked to the learning outcomes, said Dr John Munro, Melbourne University’s head of exceptional learning and gifted education.

He explained to L&D Professional that when people learn something for the first time it’s represented in the mind as electrical activity.

The idea is to have the people you are teaching complete activities in a manner that stores the knowledge in a more permanent way, he said.

“If I link positive emotion with that, when on the next occasion I stimulate that knowledge the people are also more likely to recall it and to engage with it. This is because they have linked positive emotion with it,” he said.

“And the research shows that you retrieve knowledge more easily when you link it to positive emotion.”

In the workplace, managers should strive to encourage an environment where employees say ‘I would like to know more about this,’ he added.

“If you are running a bakery, you don’t want people leaving saying to themselves ‘I never want to set foot in that place again’. You would lose customers," Dr Munro said.

“I would like the people I teach to leave the teaching session saying ‘I would like to know more about this’, rather than ‘I never want to set foot in that place again’."

Dr Munro said the approach is especially significant in the workplace where managers can fail to give their staff appropriate feedback.

“They may, for example, inadvertently give their staff the message that they shouldn’t ask questions or take initiative.  Their feedback may leave staff with a more negative orientation to practice in the work place,” he said.

Dr Munro himself used to be a maths and science teacher and would teach classes on topics such as factorising quadratics.

“When I say to the class at the beginning of the second lesson : “We are going to learn about factorising quadratics”, will I get a ‘yeah’, or a ‘yuk’?” he said. Usually it’s a yuk.

“But if I have my students at the end of the first lesson say ‘hey, that started off hard but my brain learnt that. I can do things now with that,’ they can see they are making progress and feel good about it.

“The more we encourage and the more we give feedback, the better. That’s just as critical in any management situation.”

Dr Munro added that this is particularly important in work environments such as schools which can be quick to give negative feedback when things go wrong, but don’t often give positive feedback when a principal or a teacher observes other teachers doing the right thing.