Emotional highs: 5 ways to meaningfully engage university students

In early childhood, learning is often perceived with great joy and excitement. Children passionately talk about what they learned and demonstrate an intrinsic satisfaction to find things out. However, when they become older, many gradually lose their sense of intrinsic excitement to engage with learning. Some explain this phenomenon in relation to the increasing responsibilities of becoming an adult (think: work, family, social roles), and as a result, not having enough time and energy to pursue ‘learning’.

Schools and universities play a significant role in human development. However, they are also considered as pivotal factors to ‘(de)form’ student attitudes and perceptions of learning. Some argue that the contemporary notion of learning has become ‘painfully disconnected from [learners] themselves’. Learning has become something we must do. Olson warns that by continuing on this course, formal education might soon reach the level where learners do things only for external reasons, numbing their internal curiosities and motivators.

In ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education’, Biesta asks: so then ‘what makes educational processes and practices educational’. He argues that education does (and should) not work in a machine-like way where ‘the world is filled into students’. Instead, the purpose of education should be to enquire how we can help students engage with and thus come into the world.These processes should require engagement with what is desirable (by universities, educators, society) and what is desired (by students). Inspired by Dewey’s work, Biesta, states that educational situations are where ideas and emotions are affected as a result of educational actions.

The rise of affectivism in education

The way we view education is shifting. Something that was once viewed through an overwhelming focus on cognition now acknowledges the emotional experiences as an integral part of learning. In fact, emotional dimensions not only affect how we learn, but learning would be unattainable in the absence of emotions.

Studies show multiple benefits of recognising and incorporating emotional dimensions of learning. These include increased learner interest, engagement, safety, being creative, pushing limits, building social skills, and enhanced academic performance.

More recently, Nature published a comprehensive study on ‘the rise of affectivism‘. Here, the authors examine the increase of research studies on emotions over the past decades and demonstrate: (1) the increasing power of affectivism (think: emotions, feelings, motivations, moods), and (2) powerful implications it has on most fields and industries, including education.

The increase of research studies on emotions. Source

So then, what are emotional highs and why do they matter?

Emotional high is a term that I define as ‘inner deep satisfaction a learner experiences when they have absorbed something meaningful’. This is underpinned by scholars who use different terms and metaphors to describe an optimal experience in learning settings. Some studies discuss this in terms of ‘peak experience’, ‘imaginal awakening’, ‘joy in learning’, while others use a chain of words to describe learning experiences of being ‘fantastic’, ‘valued’, ‘worthwhile’ and ‘reinvented’.

In contrast to everyday joys (think: winning a lottery or waking up in the morning with a ray of sunshine on your face), emotional highs are relatively unique and rare learning-related moments that are unlikely to happen in everyday life. Instead, the high is typically experienced as a simple, uncomplicated moment that, in one or another way, assists with making sense of something meaningful to the learner. These experiences are proved to foster student engagement, subjective satisfaction and, importantly, make the learning experience meaningful, inclusive and purposeful.

Considering emotional highs in higher education

Most of the research on emotional highs sits in adult experiential learning as that environment is known for actively incorporating emotional experiences in the educational design. Based on the previous work on emotional highs, I wonder what aspects could be considered in universities.

Here are 5 practices to make learning in higher education more meaningful and filled with emotional highs:

1. Invitation to explore. University students may always be expected to explore and find things out. However, exploration takes time and is linked to permission (to discover) and a sense of openness (in terms of where/how/what to look for). Teaching and learning at universities are often time-bound and inhibited by pressures and standards linked to assessments, the correct-answer culture, and the negative affiliation with failure (which often is linked to a lower mark).

For example, an open-ended reflective question like ‘why is this important?’ can assist students with personal exploration rather than producing the correct answer. Answering such questions when one has authentic experiences to reflect on can be particularly beneficial. Exploration can exercise the rational as much as emotional, physical and spiritual dimensions and can seek clarity, depth and understanding.

2. Facing the unknown. There is a genuine excitement about interacting with something we do not know (yet). While some see these experiences as uncomfortable, many emphasise the abundance of joy and adrenaline when interacting with the unknown.

Many emotional highs occur when there is space for authentic curiosity, creativity and enquiry which, Biesta argues, are at the core of educational processes. It is a space where the unknown turns into a discovery – something new, stimulating and often surprising. As a result, we engage differently when we do something for the first time.

3. Escaping one’s routines. While routines and habits are inherent to many university processes, they can also blind us to other and possibly better possibilities. It appears that temporally escaping one’s environment can be intriguing and valuable for learners. Clearing the mind and opening up new horizons are some of the benefits.

Rare are those moments when students have a chance to see with their own eyes and feel with their hearts. Something happens when learners are ‘away’: away from mobile phones, busy lifestyle, familiar classroom or routines. Some learners find these escaping experiences soothing and therapeutic. Temporal escape can be beneficial and allow one to learn something new or become someone else.

4. Sense of ‘being pushed’. This is not about physically pushing someone off the cliff. Instead, it is a perceptual push that opens unique, creative and divergent pathways for learning. A challenge designed by the learner themselves will always be different from when someone or something else ‘pushes’ them. Experiences hidden in the challenging moments can affect learners’ ideas, values and attitudes, and frequently rapid change.

Experiences of being pushed are not always a ticket to learning highs. Mainly because the individual perception of risk and challenge is different. A learner’s participation and engagement are required as they involve action, effort, and drive and give the learner time and space to personalise the ‘pushed’ learning experience. Importantly, in retrospect, the learner must see the necessity and worth of being pushed.

5. Safety and acceptance. Previous aspects are not possible without students feeling safe, free and accepted for learning highs to emerge. People need a safe environment (physically, emotionally and psychologically) to discover and absorb. Learners find it difficult to make connections if: (1) they are ashamed, (2) they may not respond quickly enough or (3) they feel stupid for giving a wrong answer.

Learning is a profoundly social process. Students require enough trust to feel they can express and share (even partly formed) ideas. There should be time, space and care for someone to feel safe, engage and learn. At the end of the day, we are all lifelong learners.

Post scriptum

This article does not aim to encourage high levels of positive emotions, nor does it extol positive emotions as the single answer to the challenges in higher education. Instead, it attempts to provide a more sophisticated take on mindsets to meaningfully engage students with learning.

There is still a long way to go. We should think about learning ecosystems as places where emotional highs are the norm rather than rare experiences found in exclusive learning settings.

Featured image attribution: Unsplash

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