Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Effect of Affect

It seems like one of those "duh" statements: emotion and attitude matter in learning. I certainly expect that students who are excited and happy about school perform better than students who are emotionally down and dour. In cognitive psychology these emotional states are called affect, and they can be positive or negative. Now, even though we (or at least I) have assumed that a student's emotional state has an impact on learning, the cognitive science research historically hasn't really incorporated affect into the way it looks at teaching and learning. Remember Mr. Spock from the original Star Trek (or Data from a more recent edition). Spock, a Vulcan, had no emotion. His thinking was clear-headed, logical and rational. Many theories about teaching and learning reflect a Spock-like view of the world. They're logical and rational. Affect is in another category.

Fortunately, more recent research from cognitive neuroscience to neuroeconomics (an up and coming new field) has begun to respect the role of affect in learning and development. Decision-making, for instance, isn't just the result of an emotionless, cost-benefit analysis (look at the work of Antoine Bechara among others). Affect plays an important role (that's why Kirk was captain and Spock second in command). The affective part of the brain also seems to matter in memory (happy experiences are more memorable) and in working memory. Stress, for instance, releases chemicals that impact brain function. Anxiety eats up working memory. Your feelings about yourself affect your performance on tests (check out the article on stereotype threats in the October Education Week).

It's time we started accounting for affect explicitly in instructional design.

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