How can teaching style and positive emotions affect learning?

A small experiment at a business school showed how mood, teaching style, and adult learning outcomes are related.

How we learn is influenced by many factors: for example, our emotions, mood, impressions of the teacher, and even the timbre of his voice. It is logical to assume that not the last place in this list is occupied by the way the material is presented – for example, in a monotonous or, conversely, dynamic manner.

Researchers at the Hult International Business School set out a few years ago to test how students’ emotions are influenced by teaching style and how they affect how they perceive the material. And although the results of the pilot study were mixed, several useful conclusions can still be drawn from it. Briefly summarize the essence.

How the study was done

The researchers conducted an experiment to understand how teaching style, students’ emotions, and their results are related. Seventy-nine business school students from 30 countries of the world took part in it. All of them took a ten-day course in operational management. On the third day, they were randomly divided into A and B groups. Both groups studied the same disciplines, only the sequence of teaching styles differed:

  • In group A, classes in the first subject were dynamic, with a high level of emotional involvement, and classes in the second subject (they began immediately after the first after a short break) were in a traditional lecture format, with a low level of emotional involvement.
  • In group B, everything happened the other way around: they were taught the first subject in the traditional “boring” lecture format, and then after the break, they started the lesson in the second subject in a dynamic format.
How can teaching style and positive emotions affect learning?

What were the dynamic and traditional teaching styles the researchers described in the table:

Dynamic style (high level of emotional involvement)Traditional style (low level of emotional involvement)
Game simulations or work involving studentsLecture and slide presentation
“Positive” instructor body languageNeutral teacher body language
A lot of humorThe minimum amount of humor
Use of video content in classVideo content not enabled
Verbal positive stimuli (e.g., “This is going to be a fun simulation” or “You will love this”)Verbal recognition of the difficulty of the topic being studied (e.g., “It can be difficult”, “It requires knowledge of mathematics”)
Using simple examplesExamples not included
Presenting material with visible enthusiasmNeutral material supply

That is, a dynamic approach assumes that students are maximally involved in the process, and the teacher creates a friendly and comfortable atmosphere and is energetic and inspired. But the traditional style required students to listen to a lecture, which the teacher gave with restraint, look at the slides, and be minimally involved. At the same time, the study’s authors did not specify whether the classes were taught by different teachers or by one.

After each session, students filled out a questionnaire: they noted the level of their emotional state on a seven-point scale (from “Very bad” to “Very good”). The students were unexpectedly asked to complete a short test two days after the class. True, slightly fewer people participated in it than at the start – 79.

The authors of the study suggested that:

  • A dynamic teaching style, where the teacher is energetic and the students are maximally involved in the lesson through activities (for example, simulations), will positively set the students. And a standard lecture, a leisurely narration, on the contrary, will not have a special effect on emotions – the mood of the participants in the lesson will be neutral.
  • Students who experience positive emotions will learn better and reproduce the learned new information than those who do not experience them.

What happened as a result of the experiment

The researchers’ key finding was how the sequence of events affects students’ results. The authors assumed that in those subjects where the approach to teaching was dynamic, students would get better results. In this case, the test scores for group A will be better for the first subject and group B – for the second. However, their expectations still needed to be met.

Group A was generally more positive than Group B and did better on tests in both subjects. This confirmed the hypothesis that satisfied students perceive the material much better and can reproduce it.

How can teaching style and positive emotions affect learning?

What influenced the mood of students in general? Some details that should have been included in the original report emerged a few years after the study. Study co-author Amanda Niemon-Peters, in an article for Training Zone, noted that group A started classes on time, but participants in group B had to wait an extra 30 minutes. This could have been an additional factor influencing the group’s mood.

But the teaching style, as it turned out, had little effect on students. The researchers believed that the mood of group B participants would rise when moving from a boring lecture to an exciting activity, while group A, which had the opposite sequence, would, on the contrary, fall. However, this was not the case: on average, with what mood the students started the school day, it remained so throughout all the classes.

The researchers suggested that external events (for example, illness or, conversely, a fortunate combination of circumstances) have a stronger effect on mood than how the teacher conducts the lesson. In addition, the lack of response to changes in teaching styles could also be because students were already used to their teachers, so they might not perceive changes in their approaches from subject to subject (the same professors taught classes).

How can teaching style and positive emotions affect learning?

However, Amanda Nimon-Peters later suggested that a combination of several factors could have contributed to the bad mood of the students in group B, among which were the delays in starting classes and the rather boring presentation of the material by the teacher in the first lesson. Amanda suggested tools to help prevent this and keep students positive, such as playing nice videos at the start of class. Amanda also gave some methodical recommendations:

  • Think about how to create or maintain a positive mood in the first 30-60 minutes (depending on the duration of the session). If you start on a good note, the feeling will stay with the students for quite some time, so avoid jumping straight into a boring list of rules of conduct or similar instructions, says Amanda. It is better to start with an engaging exercise or an interesting insight for the audience but move on to organizational information after a short break.
  • Gather information about the students ahead of time: for example, ask them to answer three questions (say, about their unique trait, the purpose of learning, and the only song they will listen to on a desert island). With this information, you can start the lesson: as an option, make a playlist of the listed music. This will make them feel like part of the group and get involved.

Researchers believe that not only individual teachers but educational institutions can contribute to students’ moods: for example, by creating programs that will help them better regulate emotions and provide useful tools for achieving internal well-being.

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