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Leveraging Emotions to Motivate Learning #82

“Emotions direct our attention, drive our behavior and determine what gets encoded into memory. They provide the energy that motivates learning.” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang & Antonio Damasio, Neuroscientists

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and working together. 

We are also a founder-member of the Gifted India Network– if you are interested in issues related to gifted education and talent development, an easy way to keep updated about talks, programs and resources is to join the Gifted India Network telegram channel (

This week, Ryan Chadha, our friend and co-founder of The Shishya Jigyasa Academy in Bangalore, shares his thoughts on how teachers can motivate students to engage deeply with learning, by igniting emotion and curiosity. His engaging piece reminds us of Arthur Shimamura’s MARGE model of learning (MARGE is an acronym for Motivate-Attend-Relate-Generate-Evaluate). Interested readers can download the free e-book on MARGE here, or see a brief graphic summary of the model here.

Leveraging Emotions to Motivate Learning

We’ve all been through it at some point or another. 

You sit down in class, the teacher stands at the front of the room and starts his monotone take on a topic you have little interest in. You feel like you are stuck to your chair. There isn’t anywhere to go, except to the recesses of a memory or a fantasy which is inordinately more interesting. 

Forty minutes go by in a flash. The bell rings, signalling the end of what seemed like an eternity. You thank the Time Gods for their expedient intervention and engage in chatter with the people next to you. Only until the next teacher walks in, with the swagger of a person intent on delivering another boring lesson on a topic you don’t care for. Idk might as well be tattooed on your forehead. 

Sounds like something you’ve been through during your school and college years?

Yeah, me too. Too many times. 

The problem is that an alarmingly large percentage of teachers and professors are either blissfully unaware or knowingly ignorant of the role emotions play in learning. Learning is not only a function of information and content. The brain is a marvellously complicated machine — and scientists are only now beginning to understand its quirks and nuances. 

The brain produces chemicals called neurotransmitters in response to various situations and circumstances. These neurotransmitters play an integral role in various processes connected with learning — the ability to focus and concentrate, the ability to remember and so on. Neuroscience tells us that when the brain produces certain neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine, to name a few), learning is deeper and more permanent. But you can’t just pop a few pills and get the brain to produce these chemicals. 

So, what can you do?

As it turns out, getting students to experience strong emotions before and during a learning activity greatly increases the production of neurotransmitters which aid learning. There are many ways of doing this, but here are a few examples:

  • before getting into a science class, children can be shown a range of experiments which pique a range of emotions — surprise, awe and curiosity 

  • one technique used often in our school is to get children to play various games based on the topic that they are studying. Games are fun and get the children excited, often boosting their ability to understand topics in a manner which mimics game-like situations. A key component of games is uncertainty — not knowing which path to take or which ball to choose often leads to surprises, again boosting the brain’s production of various neurotransmitters which aid learning 

On a fundamental level, organising learning activities in a way that piques emotions like wonder, awe and curiosity also satisfies another neuroscience principle:

We don’t pay attention to boring things.

So a learning activity which satisfies both conditions (igniting a flurry of emotions and is interesting) primes the brain and puts it in an ideal state for learning to occur. 

Admittedly, the way the education system is currently designed doesn’t always cater to the conditions laid out above. Textbooks hardly ignite curiosity. In fact, most textbooks would put you to sleep even if you’ve just had a strong brew of coffee. 

As a result, the onus is on progressive educators to up their game and deviate from expected norms to ensure that the conditions for learning are ripe. Planning lessons and activities so as to ignite emotion and wonder takes work. And teachers already have so many demands placed on them. Stressing on the process rather than the outcome (again not a natural line of thinking for most people involved in education) will go a long way to ensuring that classroom practices align with scientific principles of learning.  

An Example of Teaching Probability

I was teaching probability to 5th and 6th graders last year. The workbook examples were all the usual suspects – there are 5 red balls and 3 blue balls, what is the chance of drawing a red ball etc. We went through the workbook questions and the response from the children was lukewarm. Children understood the concept but it wasn’t apparent that they saw how pervasive the study of probability is.

So over the next few classes, I devised a few probability games. These were simple games of chance where the outcomes were uncertain depending on the choices being made. This is where the class came alive. They played and played and took their understanding to new levels. The module on probability finished with the children devising their own games – calculating payoffs, expected values and even being able to price games in the same way a casino does. That is what happens when you can tap into the emotions of children! 

-Ryan Chadha


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