Teaching with Emotion: Approaches Across the Disciplines – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 5

5 Mar

The really difficult part of teaching is not organizing and presenting the content…but rather in doing something that inspires students to focus on that content-to become engaged, to have some level of emotional involvement with it.

Robert Leanmnson in “Learning as Biological Brain Change”

In following up the recent Credible blog post in which Jane O’Brien described how to convince students to believe that your ideas are credible, Chip and Dan Heath would add this as a follow up:  “belief counts for a lot, but belief isn’t enough.  For people to take action, they have to care.”

That’s where emotion comes in.  Emotion makes people care.  It makes students feel something.

With these starting points in mind, teachers might build Savvy Learning and Teaching practices that inspire your students to have emotional involvement with your subject by:

  • Transforming an analytical idea into something that hits ‘em in the gut
  • Using emotion to get your students to care about your assignments, course, and discipline
  • Creating a mystery to arouse your students’ curiosity
  • Associating your subject with things that students already care about
  • Allowing students some choice in your assignments
  • Showing your own excitement for your discipline

Read on for more specific discussions of these ideas. 

Hit ‘em in the gut. The role of emotion in making teaching sticky is “to transform an idea from something that’s analytical or abstract or theoretical and make it hit us in the gut,” say the Heath brothers.   I will also advocate in this blog that as teachers we should think of ways to – figuratively! – hit our students in the gut.  The Heath brothers describe a laboratory teacher who began his safety lesson by demonstrating to his students how a laboratory acid dissolved a cow eyeball.  This is a great example of a clear and emotionally powerful, even motivational, message.  Students are more likely to care about the importance of wearing goggles after seeing an eyeball dissolve in front of them!

Emotion can motivate your students to care. Motivation theories also inform us that students must value something before they are motivated to work hard to achieve it.  How do we make students value our courses?  We have to make them care and emotional leverage is a great way to make students care.

I recall a pivotal moment in my own scientific career where emotion led to increased motivation to learn.  I was a first year graduate student secretly afraid that I was too old for the rigors of graduate school.  In the Drug Receptor Interaction course I was taking, our instructor presented the material on one overhead (this was before the days of PowerPoint) and a photograph of the scientist who had made the discovery on another overhead.  She said that she wanted us to remember that these were real human beings that made these discoveries. When she projected the picture of Julius Axelrod she mentioned that he was 40 years old when he received his PhD.  The emotion I felt was relief and even a bit of joy.  For the first time I felt that I wasn’t too old.  I felt that I could be a scientist.  I developed confidence that someone like me could succeed in this discipline.  It was incredibly motivating for me.

Create a mystery. Another way to get your students to care is to create a mystery that arouses their curiosity.  For instance, before the end of class a physiology teacher might ask

What do your brain cells and this Duracell battery have in common?  Find out by reading chapter 6.

Or a genetics teacher could set up her lecture at the beginning of class by saying,

As we discuss the genetic basis of disease, I want you to keep this question in your mind: is a genetic mutation necessarily a negative thing?

Find out what your students do care about. From Made to Stick: “The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t yet care about and something they do care about.”  But sometimes it can be difficult to determine what our students care about.  One way to find out is to ask them.  On the first day of class, ask students to fill out a brief questionnaire.  Ask them what they hope to get out of your class by the end of the semester.   Use these responses to frame your teaching for the rest of the semester.

Allow students to choose. Another way to increase student  motivation to do well on your assignments is to allow some amount of student choice.  For instance, if you assign a paper you may want to allow students to choose the topic, (within your established boundaries) ensuring that the topic will be of interest, hence valuable to them.

Show your own enthusiasm for your subject. Sometimes I will have people challenge the use of emotion in teaching fields like science or engineering, arguing that these are objective, data-driven fields with no place for emotion.  I disagree.  Science and engineering fields offer rich sources for emotional content: curing diseases, protecting our planet, and designing interventions that improve our lives.  One of the most consistent positive comments about my teaching that I have received over the years is that I have an “infectious enthusiasm” for my subject.   I think most teachers are passionate about their area of expertise.  Don’t be afraid to let that shine through.


Robert Leanmnson. “Learning as Biological Brain Change.” Change  32.6 (Nov-Dec 2000): 34-40.
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Eric Record

  • SUCCESS in Teaching – An Introduction and a First Principle, Simple
  • Active Learning will not (in itself) lead to SUCCESS in Teaching – Part 2, Unexpected
  • Engineering Concrete Footings: Foundations for Sound Pedagogy – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 3, Concrete
  • Incredible! – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 4, Credible

Julius Axelrod photo: Science Photo Library http://www.sciencephoto.com/media/115070/enlarge


3 Responses to “Teaching with Emotion: Approaches Across the Disciplines – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 5”

  1. biologycourses 10 March 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    These are the best advices for the students.


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