College is stressful! We have to balance papers, exams, and part-time jobs. How can you keep your grades up with all of this going on? The emotions we feel during this time can help!
Can you remember your first day of classes? Were you excited, nervous or both? Like many students; you probably had a number of different feelings about starting a new year, or a new course, or for many, the next stage in life!
How did you react to these feelings? Did you plan ahead to be organized and work on assignments ahead of time? Did you sit back and enjoy the excitement with friends? The excitement and the other positive emotions that come along with starting a new year can be impactful towards learning. You may have heard that emotions and “thinking” are separate entities.
A common theme we often hear in media and popular culture involves the debate between thinking with your heart, versus thinking with your brain. Through recent studies, psychologists have learned this may not be the case. Instead, we are now learning that logic and emotions are related, and influence our learning experiences equally.
Simply put, emotions are a big part of our lives that help guide our thoughts, attitudes and behaviours. We perceive and understand the world around us through an emotional lens, and depending on how we feel, impacts how we take in and process information. This makes positive emotions vital to learning! Generally speaking, if we are in a good mood and have a positive attitude, we can perform better. Positive emotions can help you to engage with the material you are learning which makes it easier for your brain to form memories as you are learning. That being said, negative emotions can have the opposite effect. If you’re stressed out and feeling down these feelings can block what you’re trying to remember.
Barbra Fredrickson is a researcher in positive psychology who suggests that positive emotions are helpful in engaging in new ways of thinking. She developed the Broaden and Build theory in which she suggests emotions broaden our thinking perspectives, and builds our personal resources. Joy for example, can encourage us to think more creatively, whereas excitement and interest can encourage us to explore and seek out new information. Fredrickson’s research demonstrated that positive emotions can help us look at the bigger picture and understand concepts and ideas in new ways. Not only does this benefit the way we think, it can also help build up your personal resources like the way you interact with others, resilience and general well-being that can help keep you going during times of stress and doubt (Fredrickson, 2004).
Fredrickson tested her theory by having students record positive events in their day-to-day life in a journal over 20 days. Students who kept track of their positive experiences reported higher levels of well-being and resilience, compared to those who didn’t keep a journal. These findings suggest that we can adapt the benefits of positive emotions when we put effort into it. Even on the worst days, being able to think of one positive experience you’ve had can help in the long-run (Fredrickson,2004). While this is only one example of an emotional approach to learning, psychologists are continuing to uncover more.
Hope theory is a relatively new lane of research in positive psychology developed by Professor Rick Snyder (2002) that looks at the importance of goal-setting has on success and well-being. Dr. Christian Wandeler and Alex Johnson have put together a great video describing the research and providing strategies that you can start using today! Check out the video here.
Our favourite take-away from their video is the role of pathways. We all follow pathways day to day without thinking. For example, we often take the same route to school or work without thinking. However, there are times where we hit barriers that interrupt our comfortable routine. How we approach these barriers will determine how we overcome them. Think of that drive to work, and you hit construction. In most cases it throws a wrench in your day and ruin it. Next time, try to think of a positive thing that could come of this. Maybe you find a faster route, or maybe your favourite coffee shop is on the way! Our brains work the same way, we like routine and don’t like being interrupted. If you hit a barrier when you’re trying to accomplish your goal, try to find the positive. Find the coffee along the way!
How can you apply what psychology is finding out about emotions and learning, to assignments and exams? It’s one thing to say being more positive and optimistic will yield better grades and test scores, but what is something you can do right now? Here are a few strategies to get you started!
1. Set your goals
Hope theory has taught us that effective goal-setting helps us to become emotionally invested in what we’re doing. By using specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely (S.M.A.R.T.) goals, this allows us to better plan for many obstacles you may face along the way.
2. Engage with the material
Find a way to connect what you’re learning with something you’re interested in. Is anything you are studying ever brought up outside of school? Was your anatomy chapter featured in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy? How so? What did they get wrong or right? Struggling with statistics? How can learning statistics give you an edge in your strategy game or fantasy draft? This way of engaging with your learning can help with assignments and studying for exams.
3. Understand how emotions impact your learning
Find a mood that fits your study habits! It can be hard to force yourself to crack down and study for hours on end. Ask yourself, are there times when it’s easier to do this? Some students like to race home after a lecture when you’re motivated and the information is fresh in your brain. Other students would rather unwind from a hard day. If you’re relaxed or motivated, these emotions can carry over to exam time. You are more likely to remember what you’ve been studying.
Feeling stress for your upcoming exam that you can’t shake? Even stress can be helpful in learning at the right level! A low to moderate stress-level can increase your alertness and awareness. Your brain can prompt that same feeling as when you were studying your material during the exam and help you remember!
4. Find a healthy balance
Being interested in your studies helps, but exams can be intimidating. Exams are vastly different from having a fun conversation about your anatomy class and that Grey’s Anatomy episode. You can be confident and well-prepared for your exam emotionally but may struggle on multiple-choice questions where every answer looks correct. Details in questions like this may be easier to notice had you been more engaged with what you were learning. A healthy balance between these approaches to emotion and learning will help address your strengths and weaknesses. You’re in control of your success, and managing emotions are important for everyday life. So, why not use this to your advantage?
5. Try mindful and meditative practices
Mindfulness and meditation can help you focus your attention, thoughts, and emotions! Feeling like you’re in control is very helpful in the learning process. Check out our blog on in mindfulness and meditation!
Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367–1378. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2004.1512
Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249-275.