happy student
Sadly, happiness might not be the key to successful learning. Source: Shutterstock.com

If you were to make your guesses for which emotions positively affect your learning, the chances are you would say happiness.

Well, you would be wrong.

Recent research has shown students who are feeling down are more receptive to learning.

Researchers split 160 adults into two control groups. The groups either watched a clip from a comedy show or a scene from a sad film.

The participants then took a comprehension test after reading a passage about polar bear survival in the Artic. Those in the ‘happy’ group were significantly worse at answering ‘sophisticated’ questions, such as deducing information from the text which was not specifically written, than the ‘sad’ group.

You could deduct more about this polar bear from this GIF if you were sad. Source: GIPHY.

However, while emotions appeared to impact more complicated answers, they had little effect on recalling facts and details of the story. Both groups scored similarly on more basic-level questions.

This experiment was then repeated with nearly 600 participants to check its reliability. Once again, the ‘sad’ group outperformed the ‘happy’ people significantly.

“We found that deep learning was better with sadness,” said Caitlin Mills, one of three authors of the study, according to The Hetchinger Report.

“The main implication is, what the student is experiencing is affecting how they learn.”

Mills hopes to conduct more research in order to better understand the effect our emotions have on our learning. Different learning tasks are likely to be conducted successfully with different emotions. For example, while sadness is useful for complicated questions, it might not be so good for engagement in debates.

There is much still to discover in regards to the optimum emotion for different tasks.

Mills’ polar bear study is not the only research which has found cognitive benefits to sadness. In 2016, an Australian study found negative emotions improved memory. And back in 2002, a study found sad people paid more attention to the tiny details than happy people, who looked at the big picture.

This research has promising applications in online learning. As educational software rises in popularity, research into these matters increases.

This software is being developed to tailor learning experiences for each unique student. Personalising content will help alleviate boredom in many students. Software which plays on personal emotions is likely to optimise learning for individuals.

So perhaps being sad isn’t as bad for your learning as you once thought. Still, it is not great for your overall health so it may be best to stick to the happy films anyway.

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