The emotions of learning

It’s often assumed learning is a cognitive and rational activity only. We think emotions are only involved when there’s difficulty. But, emotional well-being and the ability to study effectively go hand in hand.

Pencils lined up in a rowLearning and teaching are emotional as well as cognitive activities. They’re emotional experiences, which occur within the context of relationship. Each learner and their teacher has their own personal history and relationship which they bring to the learning situation.

Rousing difficult emotions

For many of us, not just young people, the emotions aroused in learning situations are often not ones we’re comfortable with. They may seem shameful, trivial, embarrassing, or even boastful.

From a developmental perspective these feelings are associated with childhood and so the association or belief that they’re immature can make us uncomfortable. We can all revert to these states when we feel challenged or under pressure, which is often the case in a learning context.

Transitions in life and study

Major points of transition in the educational system usually coincide with major personal developmental milestones. For example, transition to university parallels the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

People who have had frequent changes in early life or have experienced traumatic separations are most vulnerable when experiencing further transitions.

The structure of the academic year means that students at all levels of school and college are continually dealing with endings and beginnings. This can bring up a range of issues which often results in over idealising or disparaging the school or college experience.

Capacity to concentrate

No-one can pay attention if their mind is preoccupied. We all know the feeling of reading something or sitting through something without taking anything in.

While some lapses in concentration are temporary. Sometimes, if the loss of concentration is persistent and accompanied by a loss of interest and motivation, it may be a sign of an underlying problem.

Lack of interest

There are many reasons your son or daughter could lose interest in study. It could be from:

  • dissatisfaction with the course or course provider
  • rebellion against parental choices
  • a position of self-preservation to avoid conflict with an authority figure
  • unrecognised depression.

Performance anxiety

Performance anxiety is usually linked to lack of confidence and poor self-esteem. It can cause an inability to make a realistic assessment of one’s own capabilities.

Some see their exam results as representing a judgement of themselves, rather than of their academic work. While some students may enjoy showing off what they’ve learned, for others it represents exposure and the threat of humiliation or failure.


A difficulty with producing work is something which happens to all of us at different times. If this is a persistent issue then there might be underlying anxieties.

Relationships with school/college staff

In an educational environment academics and other staff play an important part in the well-being of students. They will be invested with strong positive and negative feelings. Some of which are realistic feelings and some of which are anti-work and anti-development.

Some will see authority figures as benign and supportive. Others will see them as harsh, controlling, judgemental, critical. There can be a wish for teachers to provide concrete answers or demonstrate skills which can be copied, rather than to stimulate curiosity.

How can I help?

Simply having an awareness of the challenges that your son or daughter may be facing will give you a better perspective when trying to support them.

Try to keep open communication ¬†with your son/daughter and to be there for them if they need you. Also, don’t be afraid to seek outside support should you feel it’s necessary.


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