Tips on Teaching

An Emotion-Based Teaching Toolbox

by Eric Royer, Instructional Design Specialist, Reinert Center

As a social scientist, my disciplinary training repeatedly instilled the belief that emotions must be separated from virtually everything we think about and do as successful, respected academics. “Good science,” as the narrative goes, involves letting objective facts and data speak; “bad science” is the ill-advised enterprise of injecting subjective feelings into the types of research questions we ask, our measures, and how we dissect and report our findings.

This disciplinary emphasis profoundly shaped my teaching toolbox, and perpetrated discrepancies between what I valued as an instructor and what my students valued as learners. My classrooms placed a premium on knowledge acquisition, which inevitably led to shallow discussions, poorer than expected exam scores, and me placing blame on students for being unmotivated to tackle the difficult task of learning. If I put hours into my lectures, why were my students not reciprocating by paying careful attention to the readings or being active participants in discussion?

I assume most of you have felt or experienced these dynamics at some point in your teaching journey. Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s 2016 book, The Spark of Learning, offers guidance on these pedagogical challenges and more by exploring how emotions — both positive and negative — permeate our classroom climates and shape our students’ learning experiences. Part I surveys the theoretical foundation and evidence-based research on emotional learning science, while Part II describes actionable steps for implementing emotion-based teaching practices in the classroom.

Whether the central focus or not, the book highlights a problematic gap that exists in our classes; students bring a multitude of emotions with them each day, yet we are often indifferent to and, sometimes, hostile to these emotions in our teaching. Cavanagh (2016, p. 205) acutely observes that our students “… are simmering in a giant vat of emotional soup, and it is a soup that most of us teaching in, advising them, and policing their performance and behavior can barely recall.” Instead of shying away from them, Cavanagh suggests proactively managing the emotional climate of our classrooms by implementing emotion-based learning activities, teaching presence, and instructional design choices.

Generate positive knowledge emotions by designing learning activities and assignments that give students control and value.

Knowledge emotions, such as interest, curiosity, flow, and “controlled” confusion, mobilize our students’ efforts, enhance their performance, and promote deeper learning. Cavanagh (2016, p. 145) recommends learning activities that maximize student control and value to stimulate these emotions in the learning process. This can take the form of giving students more choice in the topics they want to study, or providing additional options for completing a final research project. Giving control to students not only aids with buy-in, but enables them to devote their time and energy to topics and research that they find intrinsically valuable.

Infuse positive emotional-traits into your teaching and classroom presence.

Faculty who are liked, admired, and supportive in the learning process are more likely to lead their students to greater heights of learning (Cavanagh, 2016, p. 64). Showing empathy and respect in our teaching helps us develop good rapport with our students, and create learning environments that are attuned to the individual needs of our students. If students sense confidence, enthusiasm, and optimism in our approach, they too will express these traits in their learning. We can also instill positive emotional traits in our students by conducting our classes mindfully, practicing verbal and nonverbal immediacy, and employing “self-disclosure” (i.e., story-telling) as go-to teaching practices in an emotion-based teaching toolbox.

Practice transparency in your instructional design to manage the emotional-state of your class.

Being transparent in our course policies, instructions, and expectations is a simple, yet effective strategy for situating students as vested and eager stakeholders in the learning process. If we introduce a large research project at the end of a semester or constantly change due dates, this creates uncertainty and stress for students. By clearly spelling out the intentions behind our learning outcomes, treating our syllabi and course schedules as social contracts, and/or distributing rubrics in advance, students are not left to figure out our grading practices or decipher our expectations (Cavanagh, 2016, pp. 198-191). In turn, this helps combat negative emotions, such as frustration or resistance, from taking root in our classrooms and manifesting in different forms, such as test anxiety, instances of academic dishonesty, or social loafing.

Here’s to the continuation of a productive semester; one in which you are cognizant of the emotional-climate of your classroom and its impact — both positive and negative — on student learning. I invite you to focus on how you can create an emotional teaching toolbox, and use these strategies and others to enliven student learning. Can you imagine developing emotion-based learning outcomes, assessments, or activities? What would they be, and what would they look like? How might they improve the quality of your course, and the degree and depth of student learning that is taking place?

If you would like to schedule a consultation to talk further about your teaching needs, please contact the Reinert Center at Please also consider sharing your perspectives on or examples of emotion-based teaching practices in the comment section below.



Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.