The Importance Of A Happy Learning Environment!

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A-level Psychology By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Psychology » A-level Psychology
Last updated: 22/05/2018
Tags: emotions & learning, studying & well-being

You're sat at your desk attempting to focus on your course work. It's due in next week and it's an important one. As much as you try to focus, your mind keeps going to that niggling argument you had with your best friend. You just can't shake it. You walk around, make a cup of coffee, and attempt once again to concentrate on the problem at hand. Your mind can't figure out the difference between an independent and dependent variable, not to mention extraneous or confounding variables! And then you're back onto the argument. Panic begins to grip you.

It's late now and you decide to come back to the assignment the following morning. You wake the next day, have a cup of coffee, perhaps (hopefully) some breakfast, and sit back at your desk. You read the assignment question and feel slightly more positive. You start thinking of that independent variable again, then the dependent….then disaster! Your mind goes blank. You tell yourself you just don't understand the question, you're not clever enough to do this course, you must be stupid! But STOP!

Let's look at an alternative? Your emotions are out of balance and this is what's hindering your progression! You've also got caught up in a pattern of behaviour that seems to begin even before you become aware of it!  

Emotions, Learning & The Brain

So why is it that some people might get caught in this negative pattern of behaviour? If we think of the brain as being like a pattern matching system it makes it easier to understand. For a very brief insight into how the brain works. Here is a simplistic view:

Nerve cells (or neurones) carry messages in the form of electrical signals (a nerve impulse). This happens when the neurone is excited. Stimuli that excite the neurones can include all sorts of sensory information including sounds, lighting, touch etc. Nerve cells send information to other nerve cells and this creates what is known as a neural pathway - Although there is no logical thought in the early brain processes, it is a situation in which nerve cells will respond according to how they responded last time this situation (or a similar situation) happened - it's a bit like matching data. Perhaps more importantly, research shows that there is a cognitive gap between a neural pathway starting and us becoming consciously aware that we are responding to it (Libet et al, 1983)! The pathway also triggers an emotional response.

Now if a positive connection has been made in relation to a particular situation (e.g. sitting at the desk to write) then the emotional area of the brain is more likely to have a positive response to learning. Whilst this is a simplistic example, let's take a look at the situation in the first paragraph. What if the argument between the student and best friend had taken place at the desk the student was trying to study at? And what if the best friend had told her she was dumb or stupid? This could potentially have reinforced an earlier connection in which the student had felt, or been told they were dumb/stupid. What if every time the student sits at the desk, because the emotional response to the argument was so strong, this now creates a strong connection between sitting at the desk and the student believing they are dumb. This thought/belief causes a negative emotional response. In effect, the frontal lobes become highjacked by this negative thinking! This causes a part of the brain known as the Amygdala to go on high alert leaving the student potentially feeling fearful (that they'll fail), stressed out, or angry, and these emotions take over the logical brain. 

A positive way forward!

Whilst our brains are neurobiologically wired to learn anything, we need to feel emotionally stable in order that we can think, focus our attention and problem solve (Desautels, 2016). It also helps to understand how easy it is for the brain to get caught up in negative thought processes and how this can impact learning. I like to think of this relationship as being like a see-saw. If we don't feel emotionally happy then our emotional responses rise causing our ability to think clearly to dip.

The good news is neuroplasticity! We know that the brain can be re-wired between neurones that are exercised and that those connections that aren't used will weaken. This emphasises the importance of creating positive learning experiences, not just whilst at college, school, university etc, but also in your place of study!

Desautels, L. (2016). How Emotions Affect Learning, Behaviours, and Relationships. Retrieved from on 22nd may, 2018.

Libet B., Gleason C. A., Wright E. W., Pearl D. K. (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain 106, 623–642 10.1093/brain/106.3.623

Sue Learoyd-Smith (PhD) GCSE Psychology Tutor (Swindon)

About The Author

I first worked as a tutor in the late 1990's and over the years have realised that the best approach to teaching is one that offers meaning to the student and helps them to achieve their full potential in a way that engages and holds their interest.

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