What Happens in the Classroom…An Exploration of the Role of Emotions in the Learning Process

NOTE: This reflection was written from the perspective of a community college educator, but it has implications for adult learning in both formal and informal settings.

Every Tuesday and Thursday at 6:10 p.m. my heartbeat grew progressively faster with feelings of anxiety and nervousness as I began to countdown the clock to 9:00 p.m. Although I was mindful of the time, I often gazed at the images on the wall and wondered if my images would ever be good enough to be considered “featured work.” The portrait of the little girl laying in an open field of grass was definitely my favorite because it was such a strong contrast between nature and humanity. There were more portraits, landscapes and fashion images on the wall that both inspired and overwhelmed me which accelerated the speed of my emotional roller coaster. I began each session of my summer Digital Photography course in the state of emotional flux described above. I never knew that being a student again and studying a subject that I loved so dearly would be such an emotional journey!

My intentions for taking this course were to enhance my photographic imaging skills; yet, I became a better educator after spending a summer being a student again. As an academic advisor, I hear countless student stories about courses that did not have favorable outcomes, teachers that did not connect with the students’ learning styles and time-management failures. Now that I have gone through the student experience again, I hear similar stories but respond with more empathy and relatability because I better understand what happens in the classroom.

As a photographer, I am so proud of the progress I made and often share my photos with anyone that expresses a slight sense of interest! However as an educator, I am most concerned about the emotional aspect of learning students experience because I feel that it is not well managed nor even mentioned. Embarking on the journey to learn a new subject is filled with highs & lows and a variety of emotions between the peaks and valleys. I think it would be valuable to students and educators if there were more communication about the possible emotions students may experience along the learning curve in an effort to sustain learner engagement.

Here are a few lessons I learned about teaching and learning and the role of emotions in the learning process:

Yikes, he is speaking another language and I am lost…

Establishing Common Language

During the third session of class, the instructor was lecturing on the various elements of photography and I murmured to myself that he was speaking a different language. If language is an equalizer then we were clearly on different levels because I did not understand much. Initially, I was being a tad bit sarcastic, but then later I realized the truth in my initial reaction. Each subject of study has common language, the foundational principles and vocabulary of the subject. It was in this moment that I realized that just because we as educators may lecture and explain complex concepts, it may not resonate with learners. How much information retained by the student is dependent on his/her understanding of common language. If learners do not fully grasp the common language of a subject then he or she may become despondent with the learning process. Discouragement in the early part of the learning process may be very difficult to overcome and prevent the learner from fully engaging in the material.

Relief or Worry…

The Power of Grades

The first sigh of relief I experienced in my photography course was the sight of a perfect score on one of my assignments. I needed that grade to give me feedback that I was going to make it through this course because until that point, all I felt was some degree of anxiety. My level of anxiety resulted from having a very limited knowledge of the technical component of photography; I have a natural “eye” but needed to improve my technical photography skills. Receiving a perfect score gave me reassurance that I could learn the new material.

When done effectively, grades do measure the students’ comprehension or lack thereof. For students doing well in a course, grades can boost self-esteem and create points of pride. The converse is also true for students struggling along the learning curve. Poor grades can lead to internal isolation and dejection from other members of the learning community because students are not necessarily vocal when they fail assignments. It is quite common for failing students to fear judgement from their peers regarding grades. However, I think if educators openly discussed the possible emotions associated with grades, students would be better able to use more emotional intelligence in extracting meaning from grades.


Tell Your Story…Students are Curious

Sometimes students wonder about the people we are behind the cloaks of our knowledge. From time to time, a student will come in and inquire about my origins- where are you from? Did you go to school here? Have you taken this class? How did you decide upon your major? All of these questions are evidence that leaners wonder about educators. Who is he/she? What does he/she want? Was this job his/her goal? These are all questions that travel through learners’ minds. I would go a little deeper to say that knowing more about my challenges and victories may encourage my students to know that their experiences are universal and similar to my own. More students would realize that experiences of feeling overwhelmed, isolated, joyful and enthusiastic are all a part of the learning experience.

Discuss the Learning Process Associated With Your Subject

One easy solution to helping students manage the emotional journey of learning is informing students about what to expect in the learning process associated with the specific subject. For instance, it is common for a photography student to spend hours on a location and not leave with the “right” shot. Similar things are true for students taking writing and math courses. After hours of researching a topic a writing student may choose to restart the process and choose another topic of interest. It may take a math student a few hours to solve a few problems when he or she only estimated the learning task to take thirty minutes or less. I propose that if instructors/educators inform students about the learning process associated with achieving subject matter proficiency and then mastery, learners would know what to expect and be better equipped to manage negative emotions when they encounter disappointment in completing learning tasks.

Emotional Check-Ins

I do not suggest that trainers/facilitators/instructors/educators replace instructional time with lots of dialogue about emotions. However, I do think short emotional ice-breakers may be a great supplement to the learning design. This quick check-in process can be something as simple as, “how are you relating to the material/training/course?” After each participants describes their emotions in one word, the instructor should lead a discussion on managing emotions and how to use emotional intelligence to achieve success related to the specific subject.

The benefit to this process is to give the facilitator feedback on the emotional well-being of learners in the course or session. Helping students move pass negative emotions and leverage positive feelings is the major objective of managing emotions in the learning process to encourage perseverance, develop new skills and expand knowledge content. In my experience, when I discuss emotional intelligence with students, something absolutely remarkable happens. They begin to self-assess their own behavior and thoughts then decide if their current reality properly aligns with their future life vision. After conducting emotional check-ins, I have witnessed students take control of their own learning and decision making process to overcome challenges associated with motivation, personal responsibility and host of other things.

In your next class session, training, meeting or learning event, how about leading the group in an “emotional check-in exercise?” Let us know how it goes.


Tonjala Eaton works an academic advisor and program coordinator at Lansing Community College in Lansing, MI. She has over 10 years of experience working with adults in both formal and in-formal environments as a diversity trainer, community organizer, consultant and educator.

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