The learning emotions: Feelings of understanding
Do feelings drive learning? If so, what are they and where do they come from?
For many years, I’ve drawn attention to the dangers of treating cognition and emotion as though they are (or ought to be) independent of one another—especially when it comes to mental development. Like many scholars working within the Piagetian paradigm, including luminaries like Lawrence Kohlberg and Kurt Fischer, I view learning as an inherently—and necessarily—emotional process. Emotions are involved in learning in a number of ways. In fact, I’d argue that human learning always involves emotion—even when we imagine that we’ve eliminated it from the process. But that’s a rabbit hole, and we won’t go there right now. This article focuses exclusively on the subset of learning emotions related to understanding.
It’s been several years since I began asking people about their learning emotions. Aspects of this research are referenced in at least three previous articles: Learning, emotion, and the Goldilocks zone, Mindset, emotion, and learning, and How do we know when we know?
In the The Equilibration of Cognitive Structures, (1985), Piaget argued that in humans, “feelings of necessity” accompany the equilibration of a mental structure. In other words, Piaget claimed that moments of understanding, insight, or competence are accompanied by feelings that alert us to the fact that a new level of capability, insight, or understanding has been achieved.
Although feelings of necessity better captures the nuances of Piaget’s full meaning, and Piaget’s feelings of necessity apply to equilibration in a broader sense, I’m going to use the phrase feelings of understanding in this article. I’ve chosen to do this primarily because the evidence provided here is from a survey of learning emotions focused on understanding. (I do not mean to suggest that the patterns reported for feelings of understanding are necessarily different for insight or competence.) I’m also going to use the words feeling and emotion interchangeably, even though I’m fully aware of the terminology wars out there in academia land.
Readers who have retained their inborn learning mechanisms will know exactly what I mean by “feelings of understanding.” They will recall feelings associated with “aha moments,” “got it moments,” “eureka moments,” or moments when “everything falls into place.” They will also know that these feelings run from mild to intense, depending on the context and the challenge level of the task or knowledge involved.
This is not a trivial matter. First of all, if we did not have a mechanism for detecting moments of insight or understanding, we would have no way of determining the difference between understanding and not understanding. People lacking the ability to make this distinction would have no way of determining when to seek clarification. Neither would they know when it was time to move on to the next step in a learning journey.
I’m not suggesting that feelings of understanding are flawless. Even with the help of learning emotions, we can be mistaken about our level of understanding. Nonetheless, it is clear that learning emotions are essential for mental development—so clear that I can confidently claim that it would be prudent to educate our children in a way that equips them with minds that provide reasonably reliable feelings of understanding.
Even if you regularly experience feelings of understanding, you may not recognize that those feelings are not the only ones associated with understanding. Humans also have certain feelings when we don’t understand and almost understand. And these are just as important as feelings of understanding even though they do not relate directly to Piaget’s notion of necessity.
In fact, Piaget’s feelings of necessity may not operate in isolation, but as part of a cycle that includes feelings associated with not understanding and almost understanding.
The Learning Emotions Survey
The following results are from Lectica’s (the nonprofit that owns me) Learning Emotions Survey. If you’d like to complete the survey yourself, we recommend doing so before viewing the outcomes shown below. (Filling in the survey takes most people no more than 5 minutes.)
Lectica’s Learning Emotions Survey offers respondents the opportunity to select three emotions for each of three states of understanding, including not understanding, almost understanding, and understanding something new. If you filled in the Learning Emotions Survey before reading this section, you probably noticed that your choices of emotions varied from state to state. Take a moment to ponder the differences and their implications for learning.
As of this writing, 150 people have taken the Learning Emotions Survey. The sample is a convenience sample, which means we haven’t set up any conditions for controlling who would complete the survey. This type of sample and sample size are reasonable for a pilot, but not good enough for forming any firm conclusions. I’ll be updating results from time to time as the sample becomes larger and more diverse.
I’ve created word clouds featuring the emotions from each state of understanding, beginning with the emotions respondents feel when they realize they understand something new. Word clouds make it easy to see trends because, the bigger the word, the more often it has been selected.
Emotions associated with understanding something new
As you can see from the word cloud below, the primary emotions associated with understanding something new suggest a continuum from satisfied to excited. Two other emotions, delighted and serene, would also fit nicely on this continuum. This cluster of emotions is compatible with descriptions of moments of understanding or insight like “aha moments,” “got it moments,” “eureka moments,” or moments when “everything falls into place.” All in all, these emotions appear to be a good fit with Piaget’s idea of a “feeling of necessity.”
Two other fairly prominent emotions—motivated and engaged—suggest the possibility that once some people feel that they understand, they enter a state in which they’re receptive to further learning.
Emotions associated with almost understanding
As you can see from the word cloud below, most of the emotions associated with almost understanding are motivational. In fact, the most common emotion in this cluster is motivated, with curious coming in second, and engaged, interested, and determined taking second, third, and fourth places. Excited and challenged are less clearly motivational, but an argument could be made that they might be motivational for at least some people.
We call the state of almost understanding (or almost achieving competence or insight) the Goldilocks zone. It’s the range in which a learning challenge is just right.
The emotions we feel when we almost understand and those experienced when we first realize that we understand something new are triggered by the brain’s built-in motivational cycle for learning—the Dopamine Opioid Cycle.
Emotions associated with not understanding
The two primary clusters of emotions associated with not understanding are downright contradictory. The largest cluster has a clear negative valence: This group includes de-motivating emotions like irritated, nervous, self-conscious, stressed, overwhelmed, isolated, unmotivated, and ashamed. A second, smaller cluster comprises motivational emotions, including curiosity, interest, determination, engagement, and motivation. It is not clear which cluster frustrated would belong to.
The distinct clusters of motivating and de-motivating emotions associated with not understanding suggest that we may be observing two kinds of learners—those likely to avoid material they don’t understand and those likely to be drawn to material they don’t understand.
In an earlier article, Learning, emotion, and the Goldilocks zone, I hypothesized that learners who experience highly de-motivating emotions when they do not understand may suffer from learning trauma caused by damaging educational experiences.
The results presented in this article suggest that distinct constellations of emotions are associated with each of the states of understanding examined here.
Emotions associated with realizing that we understand something new
The primary emotions respondents experienced when they understood something new (cluster 1) were a good fit with Piaget’s feelings of necessity. However, another cluster composed of motivational emotions (cluster 2) was also associated with the state of understanding something new, suggesting that feelings of necessity may sometimes be quickly supplanted by a desire to learn more. This outcome aligns nicely with the sequence of events in the dopamine opioid cycle, in which (1) dopamine increases motivation to strive, (2) striving eventually leads to success, and (3) success results in the release of opioids, which provide a moment of pleasure (emotion cluster 1) and (4) trigger the release of dopamine (emotion cluster 2).
Emotions associated with almost understanding
Only one clear cluster, composed of motivational emotions, was associated with the state of almost understanding. As noted above, emotions that drive the desire to understand or achieve competence, are commonly associated with the striving hormone, dopamine.
The fact that the only clear cluster for this state is composed of motivational emotions, suggests that once humans arrive in a state of almost understanding, most, if not all, are likely to be highly motivated to achieve our goal. We’re set up to take the steps that will allow us to arrive at our destination and experience Piaget’s feeling of necessity.
Emotions associated with not understanding
The two contradictory clusters of emotions associated with not understanding are consistent with results reported in the article, Learning, emotion, and the Goldilocks zone. The de-motivating emotions suggest the possibility of previous experiences with learning that may interfere with the drive to learn new things. The motivating emotions suggest that previous experiences with learning have contributed to a healthier relationship with the state of not understanding—one that would support the drive to learn new things (at least within reason).
Two questions arise for me. First, what is the optimal balance of de-motivating and motivating emotions? We don’t want learners to be completely fearless, but we also don’t want them to be unnecessarily fearful. The second is, How do we help people who are unnecessarily fearful to undertake the journey that leads to “almost understanding?” It seems pretty clear that the learning emotions associated with almost understanding can get them to the next step.
It seems possible that the cluster of motivational emotions that accompany the state of almost understanding precede and create conditions that ultimately lead to understanding and Piaget’s feelings of necessity. Moreover, the kinds of emotions we feel when we don’t understand may play a pivotal role in determining if and when we choose to learn something new. Stay tuned. We’ll soon know more.
Appendix: Males & females
Even though the sample size doesn’t justify the comparison, I thought it would be fun to compare the emotions of males (n = 66) and females (n = 58). (We don’t have enough data to make this kind of comparison for other genders.)
As you can see in the image below, the emotions expressed for the “don’t understand” state are almost identical for males and females, with only minor differences in their prominence. Interestingly, males expressed a greater variety of emotions (21) than females (16). If it holds up in further research, this pattern violates a common stereotype and would be worth examining.
The emotions expressed for the “almost understand” state (below) are also almost identical, with only minor differences in their prominence. However, once again, males expressed a greater variety of emotions (17) than females (12).
Finally, the predominant emotions expressed for the “do understand” state (below) are also almost identical, with only minor differences in their prominence. This time, males expressed a greater variety of emotions (16) than females (14), with a much smaller margin than observed in the don’t understand and almost understand states.
I leave you to ponder the patterns in these comparisons of males and females.
Piaget, J. (1985). The equilibration of cognitive structures: The central problem of intellectual development (T. Brown & K. J. Thampy, Trans.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Wolfe, P. (2006). The role of meaning and emotion in learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2006(110), 35–41.
Tompkins, Z. (1998). Affect, emotion & cognition and the learning process. Proceedings from Process Education Conference, Seattle University, Seattle.