Not so long ago, it was thought that learning was a strictly rational process in which emotions did not have a big role. This belief was formed together with a certain definition of intelligence derived from the “famous” IQ tests – yet designed to detect learning difficulties in children. We now know that emotions play such an important role in cognition that they can serve as a lever or, on the contrary, become a brake. Whether you are a teacher or a learner, here are some things to keep in mind!

A vital protection system

An emotion can be defined as an “organism’s reaction to an external event, which has physiological, cognitive and behavioral aspects” (Jacques Lecomte’s Les 30 notions de la psychologie). Our emotions have long been considered unimportant, if not shameful or cumbersome. We now know that they play a vital role in our individual equilibrium and in our social relations. Thus, if it has already been good to silence or hide them, the tendency now is to listen to them, to tame them, to express them and to learn how to manage them better.

It is normal that, to a certain extent, our emotions fluctuate because that is how they fulfill their role, that of a hyper-sophisticated protection system. This system helped us ensure the survival of our species by helping us identify in our environment the elements that can affect us, favorably or not, and then guiding us on how to react to preserve our integrity, or our well-being. Our emotions play this role now as well, even if our environment is different. As an extra note, the term “emotion” comes from the Latin “emovere” which means “to put in motion”.

All emotions are useful!

The quality (positive or negative) and intensity (high or low) of the emotion indicates the presence of an event or situation that may have an impact – either positive or negative, strong or weak – on our integrity or our well-being. The nature of the emotion (joy, fear, sadness, anger, etc.) provides clues as to the action or adjustment needed to regain or protect our integrity or well-being.

Thus, although some emotions are said to be “positive” because they are perceived to be pleasurable, and others are termed “negative” because they are unpleasant, all emotions are useful.

As discussed in a previous article, four types of emotions were identified as having an important influence in learning.

Learning is destabilizing!

Learning involves questioning what we think we know, opening oneself to new ideas and more complexity, and making efforts without necessarily knowing the outcome. In short, it is a destabilizing step which, although it contains a lot of positive emotions, can not keep us away from feeling any negative emotion. It is important to remind the learners of this fact, to encourage them to express themselves on what destabilizes them in their learning process and to give them the necessary resources to help.

This is all even more important since to deny or repress one’s emotions does not make them disappear … on the contrary, it risks amplifying them.

Similarly different

A phenomenon that involves a great deal of subjectivity and impalpability, the emotions experienced in a group vary from one learner to another. This difference can be explained by several factors specific to a group of individuals: ethnic origin, culture, gender, sense of belonging to the educational institution, and so on. Studies have confirmed, for example, that exam anxiety is higher among students in some parts of the world than in others.

Despite the influence that these factors may have, it is the individual differences that carry the most weight: our physiology and our genetics, our experience, our personal values, and so on. To these intrinsic peculiarities, one must add elements such as self-confidence, self-interest for a particular subject, and the fact that the emotional state of each person evolves distinctly over time.

Accelerator or brake on the learning process

Emotions can affect the learner at different stages of the learning process. As it has been demonstrated, they can have a positive or negative impact on one’s attention, motivation, learning strategies and ability to self-regulate learning.

Some of the negative emotions that may hinder the learning process at any time include:

  • anxiety
  • fear of failure
  • embarrassment
  • the inability to understand an exercise
  • discouragement
  • boredom

On the side of the positive emotions that have a beneficial effect on this process, we find mainly:

  • the pleasure of learning in general
  • the pleasure of learning on a particular topic
  • enthusiasm for the learning materials
  • the hope of succeeding
  • pride due to achievements

Positive emotion not so beneficial and negative emotion not so bad

A clarification needs to be made: it is not because an emotion is positive, in the broad sense, that will necessarily make it beneficial to the learning process. To be useful, it must be related to learning or a specific task; otherwise, it can impair attention and affect performance.

In parallel – even if it is not a question of encouraging the rise of negative emotions in the learner – just because an emotion is negative does not represent in all circumstances a brake for the learner. Anxiety, embarrassment or anger can motivate the learners to redouble their efforts, provided that the learners want to succeed and believe in their chances to thrive. Of course, the intensity and frequency of the negative emotion felt will also have an impact – if it is too strong or recurrent, the learner risks being overwhelmed by the feeling of helplessness.

Emotional contagion, yes it exists…

The emotional state of the teacher can have a considerable influence on the learner. As evidence, a contagious effect of teacher stress on students has been uncovered in a large, recently published Canadian study. Although the experiment took place in primary classes, it is not impossible for the phenomenon to occur in classes of adult learners as well. This display belongs to the big family of “emotional contagion”, a process already known, partly genetic, involving our “mirror neurons”, by which we unconsciously impregnate ourselves with the emotions of others.

Because of our psychophysiological differences and our personal experiences, this phenomenon varies in intensity from one person to another. Although it is an involuntary mechanism, the simple fact of knowing of its existence, knowing that the emotions, positive or negative, can spread so easily in our environment, can encourage the teacher to evaluate his/her state of being and to try to change it, if necessary.

Emotions and memory: an explosive duet

Memory is so crucial to learning that the two notions are often confused. While learning is the process of changing behavior, memory is the ability to store and use information.

Emotions have a considerable influence on memory. This is why we remember more emotionally-charged events. It is a safe to bet that you remember where you were on September 11, 2001, but maybe not on September 11, 2000 … It’s a manifestation of what’s called the Flashbulb memory phenomenon.

Recently, neuroscience has revealed that in order to “encode” learning, the brain needs feedback on its predictions, more specifically a signal of error that must cause the learner to feel surprised (see Neuroscience: Learning in 4 steps). Add as well that it is mainly on long-term consolidation that emotions act.

We also know that the closer a situation is to us and if it touches on one of our basic needs – think of Maslow‘s pyramid – the more it is likely to challenge us emotionally.

Empathic teaching

Unlike emotional contagion, empathy is a conscious phenomenon of being able to feel someone else’s emotional states, of “putting oneself in one’s shoes”, an ability to listen to one’s own emotions or “self-awareness.” Essential to decipher other’s feelings, this quality which implies being open and respectful towards others is one of the keys to effective communication.

Since every teacher has already been a learner, everyone can do this empathic exercise to remember the emotions that have marked their education, the situations that caused them and the teachers’ attitudes that have had a significant impact on them.

Take advantage of the learning environment

Because it is conducive to stimulating exchanges and surpassing oneself, a learning environment is generally a great place to develop emotional “skills”. This is true for the youngest learners, but also for adults … since we never stop evolving in terms of emotions. This context can, therefore, enable everyone to improve their social skills as well as their ability to collaborate, to express their point of view, to take initiatives, to listen to others, etc.

In turn, the learner must be willing to develop these skills. Nevertheless, some teaching approaches or activities can also stimulate this dimension, in addition to conveying the learning materials.

The two great allies of the learner

Self-confidence and attributing value to the tasks one performs are two things that the learner benefits from cultivating. In fact, they are essential for the manifestation of all the positive emotions associated with learning and for preventing or reducing the rise of negative emotions. Since the adults are responsible for managing their emotions, it is more fitting for them to take the time to stop and evaluate their condition with regard to these two factors. If it seems desirable to make changes, it is up to them to see what actions they can take or what help they can ask for.

The teacher may also have an influence on these two learner allies, including through emphasizing the learner’s strengths rather than his shortcomings, by stimulating his interest in the course-related tasks and by introducing to its teaching a culture where mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn rather than failures. To maintain the interest of the adult learner, it is also necessary to clearly explain the concrete applications and benefits that can be derived from the learned knowledge (see The adult: a distinct Learner and 12 tips for adult-friendly online training).

The advantages of online training

Some e-learning tools are of great interest in creating an environment conducive to the development of positive emotions and fostering constructive interpersonal exchanges at each stage of the learning process (see Does a sense of community matter in online learning?). The discussion forum (see Why aren’t your students participating on the discussion board?), live sessions (synchronous learning) and social networks represent three valid options. They can be used to take the learners’ pulse on the encountered difficulties, to discuss on a regular basis the most destabilizing challenges they face, or to invite them to propose topics for discussion and to launch themselves in meaningful exchanges.

Online training also has a powerful tool to get the most out of the close relationship between emotions and memory: simulation exercises that use actors/characters with which the learners can relate to. To succeed in this process, it is necessary to ensure that the scenarios challenge the learner, and maintain his interest by distributing in a balanced way the context and the educational interventions (questions and explanations).

Virtual reality to stimulate empathy

A word about virtual reality, this hyper-sophisticated solution that is more and more integrated into the training where the immersion can really serve the learning. Since virtual reality gives the impression of experiencing a real situation in an environment that exists for real, it is the tool that can generate in the learners the emotions they would face if they learned “on the field”. The advantage is that they can experiment for as long as necessary without putting themselves in danger or endangering others.

According to an experiment conducted by Stanford University, the results of which have just been published, virtual reality could be used to positively stimulate empathy. As part of this experiment, researchers developed a virtual reality application called Becoming Homeless, which consisted of immersing participants – equipped with a VR headset – into the world of a person who is gradually excluded from society until becoming homeless. This same story was presented to another group of participants as a text or scenario 2 D. All were then asked to sign a petition for affordable housing. In the first study, 82% of those who were immersed in the story through the application of VR signed this petition against 67% of the other participants. In the second study, the proportions were respectively 85 and 63%. Like this technology could help us become more “human”, and empathy is a quality that can be developed.


It is by starting to listen to our emotional states and those of others that we can hope to tame, over time, the moving reality of our emotions and get more gratification. Moreover, a learning environment offers a perfect context to discover and improve your emotional skills!

About emotional intelligence

The concept of emotional intelligence (EI) was born in the 1990s. First defined by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer, it was popularized by Daniel Goleman with the publication of his book Emotional Intelligence, then by broad coverage of the subject by the New York Times. Since then, several theories have been proposed to explain – and measure: after IQ tests, those of EQ! – with the greatest accuracy this notion difficult to define and tempting to simplify.

According to the revised model of Mayer and Salovey (1997), emotional intelligence is a skill that includes the following four branches:

  1. The verbal and nonverbal perception and evaluation of emotions.
  2. The ability to integrate and assimilate emotions to facilitate and improve cognitive and perceptual processes.
  3. Knowledge of the domain of emotions, understanding of their mechanisms, their causes, and their consequences.
  4. Managing one’s own emotions and those of others.

However, the idea that we would have other forms of intelligence than our general cognitive abilities (factor g) as measured by IQ is invalidated by science. Rather, our relational skills come from our general cognitive skills coupled with our personality, mainly the “agreeable” personality trait, in accordance with the model known as the Big Five, which is the consensus in psychology.

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.