Emotions That Stimulate Student Learning and Growth

Surprise, interest, confusion, and awe may be key to good student outcomes.

Posted Sep 03, 2015

One of the most thought-provoking experiences of the summer for my family occurred when we viewed Pixar's movie “Inside Out.” This animation takes its audience inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley as she works through the trials of her family's move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Featured in the story are five characters that personify Riley's emotional life: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Basing itself on decades of scientific research, the film animates how emotion influences memory, behavior, and self-identity.

As the next school year begins, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if the creators of "Inside Out" had chosen to follow Riley through her daily life as a student. Little is known about the interior lives of students as they engage in academic tasks. What do students feel as they sit in class? When they read? When they don't understand? As they do homework? During a test? When they get a low grade? Diverse students likely have diverse emotional reactions to these activities, but there may be trends that are instructive. Understanding any one individual student's feelings may point us in the direction of what may help them along the continuum from experiencing failure to "getting by" to thriving in school and beyond.

One of the lessons of "Inside Out" is that circumstances can be altered to evoke different emotions and their effects. What emotions would be most conducive to encouraging learning, curiosity, exploration, and reflection in students during this upcoming school year? University of North Carolina emotion researcher Paul Silvia suggests that there are four major "knowledge emotions" that are helpful in this regard: surprise, interest, confusion and awe.

Although they differ in some ways, surprise, interest, and confusion are similar in that they typically are evoked by something novel. These emotions often function to "catch" individuals' attention, a necessary condition for learning to occur.

Awe occurs when individuals are overwhelmed by greatness or vastness in some way, and may be the most transformative knowledge emotion. Awe transfixes and absorbs individuals in mystery, and ultimately stretches beliefs so far that it requires a rethinking of what previously was known to be true. Several intriguing studies of awe have been conducted in the past several years. This research shows that gazing at a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton or towering tree, or watching a video with grand shots of nature, or even droplets of colored water colliding with a bowl of milk, can stimulate feelings of awe. Personally connecting with the vastness of nature or the universe, beautiful art or architecture, the life story of someone particularly virtuous or inspirational, or a location with a sense of timelessness or significant history associated with it may have even stronger long-term effects.

Of course, what specifically can be done by educators to evoke these knowledge emotions will depend on a host of factors, including the age, ability and background of students. However, focusing on the emotions that most stimulate students to develop may help to clarify our dreams and purposes for this school year. As Quaker educator Parker Palmer suggests, we want students to be challenged by those "great things" that naturally intrigue us all at some point in life, around which seekers always have gathered to inquire, discuss, and try to understand. There are many Rileys in our society who will be enriched — or not — in memory, behavior, and self-identity, based on the choices those in positions of power around them make this school year. Reflecting on ways to stimulate surprise, interest, confusion, and awe would be one good place to start.

Andy Tix, Ph.D. often writes about experiences of mystery and awe at a new blog devoted exclusively to these topics: Reflections on Mystery and Awe. His primary specialization is in the psychology of religion and spirituality.

Note: Myles Johnson contributed substantial insight to this post.

More Posts