Why Learning Is More Than Cognition

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Is learning more than thinking?

As a psychologist, I’m obviously pleased that teachers are becoming so enthusiastic about how psychological principles can be used in education“, writes teacher Marc Smith

The overwhelming interest is, quite rightly, directed towards cognition; predominantly in terms of memory, but also in other areas such as attention.

The danger, however, is that in concerning ourselves only with cognition, we begin to neglect other contributory factors that can enhance and diminish learning. Learning isn’t just about cognition, indeed, learning occurs through a complex interaction of cognitive, social and emotional processes.

Social, because learning doesn’t take place in isolation and, as studies have discovered, being raised in isolation can be highly detrimental to a range of skills, from language learning to self-regulation.

Emotional, because affective states can both positively and negatively impact our capacity learn.

Cognitive-Emotional Interactions

These emotional aspects of learning are what interest me the most. Often referred to as non-cognitive, in reality, they intricately interact with cognitive states (as well as the social environment).

Teachers are now familiar with the need to encourage resilience in young people, but resilience also involves emotional states. Young people who are less academically resilient (or academically buoyant) also display behaviours linked to poor emotional regulation and fear of failure.

Components of academic buoyancy and resilience are, therefore, more closely associated with emotion and less with cognition but these processes inevitably play a role through the interaction between memory (what we recall) and emotion (how we feel about the memories we are recalling).

Perhaps the most obvious sign of emotion playing out in the classroom is through anxiety.

With the current obsession with high stakes testing and the lack of emotional support for young people, anxiety is bound to play a bigger role in learning environments.

Anxiety, like all emotions, plays out on several levels with biological, cognitive, behavioural and emotional components operating simultaneously. Nowhere is this more obvious than in test anxiety, a situation-specific reaction to having one’s abilities assessed in some formal way.

While some anxiety is actually beneficial to us, once we pass that ‘sweet spot’ things begin to go downhill.

David Putwain at Edge Hill University found that test anxiety can detrimentally impact working memory, literally slicing grades off GCSE results, while earlier research into medical decision-making found that anxiety and other emotional states can increase what psychologists call cognitive load, taking our cognitive capacity beyond useful limits.

But it’s not all bad news. Emotions aren’t simply positive or negative, and even emotional states like boredom have their uses. Reinhard Pekrun of the University of Munich suggests that all emotional states can be either activating or deactivating, dependent upon the situation, as in the earlier anxiety example.

Additionally, seemingly negative states like boredom can actually work in our favour. For example, Sandi Mann at the University of Central Lancashire has found that boredom can lead to greater creativity, while other research indicates that boredom can motivate us to act.

Of course, many emotional states can be highly destructive, and while creating happy classrooms isn’t always necessary, encouraging emotionally supportive classrooms is certainly a worthwhile endeavour. This endeavour is one that will reap rewards in terms of wellbeing and academic progress further down the line. Emotional awareness isn’t, therefore, just about wellbeing or just about grades, it’s much more comprehensive than that.


Marc Smith is a teacher, Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. He is the author of The Emotional Learner and co-author (with Jonathan Firth) of Psychology in the Classroom. He tweets at @marcxsmith


In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account in which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated for '500 Most Influential People in Britain' in The Sunday Times as one of the most influential in the field of education - he remains the only classroom teacher to feature to this day ... Sharing online as @TeacherToolkit, he rebuilt this website (c2008) into what you are now reading, as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK', winning the number one spot at the UK Blog Awards (2018). Today, he is currently a PGCE tutor and is researching 'social media and its influence on education policy' for his EdD at Cambridge University. In 1993, he started teaching and is an experienced school leader working in some of the toughest schools in London. He is also a former Teaching Awards winner for 'Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School, London' (2004) and has written several books on teaching (2013-2018). Read more...

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