Teaching Strategies

Connecting Learning With Emotions

Emotional scripting—working to evoke specific emotions in students—adds a new layer to lessons to make them more memorable.

Four men playing basketball. One is shooting a free throw.
©Shutterstock/bbernard

Have you ever finished teaching a class and thought, “Ugh. That was like pulling teeth! I felt like I was talking to a wall. Everyone was so unmotivated.” Of course you have—we all have. But why do experiences like this happen, and how do we avoid them? More importantly, how do we replace them with richer, more fulfilling experiences for ourselves and our learners? One approach is to try consciously using emotion.

Emotional scripting is a technique that involves intentionally creating different emotional states for learners at different stages of a lesson—it’s like an additional layer in a lesson plan. Instead of a plan that consists solely of a sequence of teacher and student actions, this technique adds the emotional states that will occur throughout each lesson segment.

By being mindful of the emotions we conjure in our students, we can turn dull, forgettable learning experiences into colorful, memorable ones.

An Example of Emotional Scripting

To see how emotional scripting can significantly change a learner’s experience without changing the content of the lesson, imagine asking students to complete a sheet of multiplication facts. Here are three possible ways to do this:

  1. Ask them to complete the sheet while you walk around and monitor.
  2. Say, “Ready, set, go!” and then start a timer and play suspenseful music.
  3. Ask students to close their eyes as you start some slow, meditative music. Count down slowly from five to one, and then ask students to open their eyes, pick up their pencil, and complete the sheet at their own pace. Instruct them to put their pencil down once they finish, close their eyes, and wait for a bell to indicate the task is over.

The academic content of these three tasks is the same, but the emotions experienced are different. Each sequence could be appropriate depending on the context. Incorporating emotional scripting allows us to be intentional about what emotions we are prompting.

The Wheel of Emotions

In order to inject emotion into our learning experiences, we can start by familiarizing ourselves with the emotions we have to work with. For that, I consult Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions.

Plutchik’s diagram features eight main emotions—joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation—and other emotions that are varying intensities of these eight. The truth is, whether you plan for it or not, your students are always experiencing one or more of these emotions at all points in your lesson. Emotional scripting helps us move them through a specific sequence that we plan for.

Start With One Emotion

To get started with emotional scripting, it’s best to pick a single emotion and try inserting it into one of your lessons. Here are a few examples of how this might be done.

  • Surprise: After passing out copies of The Secret Garden, a colleague of mine had students reach under their chairs. There each student found a sealed envelope. When they opened it, they found the name of one of the characters in the book—they would be assuming that identity during the class’s reading of the book.
  • Disgust: After reading about cultures in which people eat insects, a colleague of mine engaged his students in a taste test. He had them close their eyes and told them reach into a bag, pull out an insect, and start to chew it. The bag didn’t really hold insects—it contained candy. But until the students realized that, the feeling of disgust made the moment memorable.
  • Anticipation: In the activity “Will It Hit the Hoop?,” Dan Meyer repeatedly shows learners video of himself shooting a basketball. But instead of showing the whole shot, he pauses the video when the ball is at the top of its flight, robbing them of the satisfaction of seeing whether it goes in or not. They have to mathematically analyze the trajectory to make a prediction before the video is finally unpaused, revealing the fate of the shot—and the fate of their prediction.

Putting It All Together

Once you get comfortable with basic emotional scripting, you can experiment with designing whole lessons for emotion. For example, I designed a paper airplane lesson as a capstone to a unit on linear functions in eighth grade.

In the lesson, students create paper airplanes according to a set of rules and see how far each will fly. The students experience joy immediately just from knowing that this math class will involve making and flying planes.

As I describe the rules for making the planes, students begin to make predictions and anticipate the outcomes. As they wait their turn to fly, there is a bit of fear and apprehension—hoping their plane goes far with everyone watching. And as students’ planes achieve different levels of success and do unexpected things, a broad range of emotions come into play: surprise, anger, sadness, and more joy.

Emotional scripting is a rewarding skill to add to your teaching toolbox, with the potential to make your classroom a richer, more enjoyable place.