Making learning last: emotion, personalization and the unexpected

In my last blog post, we looked at the effectiveness of images and stories in helping to make learning more memorable. In this post I want to look at the role of emotion – both in the learning environment in general and in the content that we include in our lessons.


Which of these adjectives would you choose to describe the ideal learning environment?

challenging         collaborative      engaging             exciting                friendly                fun         open               questioning        relaxed                 supportive

You probably ticked most of these, but as you did I suspect you thought of individual students:  one who likes classes to be more serious and directed, and another who thrives on fun and a less structured approach; one who really welcomes the opportunity to ‘perform’ and another who feels stressed when asked to produce language in front of their peers. Clearly, what is challenging (in a positive way) for one person may feel threatening to another.  So, what is the right path for us as teachers to take and how do we accommodate these differences?


Research presented by Stevick (1) shows that stress or anxiety interfere both with attention when learning and with retrieval of information (memory) during testing or performance. The suggestion is that teachers need to foster a relaxed and supportive atmosphere in the classroom. However, other research shows that if students are too relaxed – in a state that psychologists call ‘low arousal’ – then capacity for learning is also reduced. So we need to find some middle ground where students feel neither stressed nor unchallenged. At the same time, we need to remain sensitive to the changing emotional states of our students (something over which have little control) and adapt the level of challenge and the type of activity accordingly. The best teachers in my experience are the ones who manage to cajole their students into performing: in other words, they challenge you – almost tease you – to learn in a friendly and non-threatening way.


Emotional engagement and empathy

I’ve spent my whole teaching and writing career seeking out material which I think will engage and stimulate students. The principle behind this is that if the medium through which language is presented is interesting and meaningful to learners, i.e. emotionally engaging, they will absorb these ideas and stories into their own communication. In doing so, they will then remember better the language that conveyed those ideas. Using authentic content, and especially ‘global’ content like that in National Geographic, is particularly good in this way because it introduces learners to a range of new experiences and new perspectives.  At the same time it encourages empathy – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s situation – which is a key part of global understanding and being a global citizen.  Which of these topics do you think encourage empathy?

  • A German supermodel describing what she eats in a typical day
  • Residents of a small town in a southern state of the USA talking about how a new library changed lives there
  • Two Palestinian boys from Gaza describing how parkour or free running helps them keep fit and gives them hope of a better life
  • A Californian millionaire describing how he plans to preserve his body by having it cryogenically frozen so that he can have a second life in the future

See below for answers *


The argument for personalization is that it immediately opens the door to what is most relatable to our learners: their own experience. But it also opens the door to hearing about others’ experiences –  the lives of others – which can be just as (if not more!) fascinating and memorable. I was reading John Hughes’ In Focus blog post about personalization and his example about ’Have you ever .. ‘ questions. I recall a class where one of the questions I posed  was, ‘Have you ever taken part in a march or demonstration?’ A student from the Dominican Republic explained that he had not been on a demonstration, but had been one of the policemen policing one. It was a demonstration to draw attention to wealth inequality and poverty in the country and was a tense affair because the police were worried about it becoming violent. We all got a bit nervous hearing this and wondered what he was going to say next. But then he told this lovely story about how, as the demonstrators marched past, he had recognized an old school friend from his town that he had not seen for years. Their different roles in the march immediately became insignificant; they greeted each other warmly and then later met up for a drink to catch up on old times. My point is that often we remember personal stories that are not our own as well, if not better, than some of our own experiences.

The personal and you

This appetite for the ‘personal’ extends to you, the teacher, too.  Students will want to hear about each other’s lives and experience but they will also want to hear about yours. Using your own personal stories can act as a useful way to model language.

For example, imagine you are teaching a lesson on ‘Lessons you’ve learnt in life’ (the language focus is Present perfect and Simple past). Before asking students to talk about lessons that they’ve learnt (about people, friends, family, money, work, health etc.) and using a model from a third party (e.g. Life Advanced Unit 1), you could tell a story of your own e.g. about the danger of sending emails or text messages in the heat of the moment. This kind of modeling not only shows learners that you too are emotionally engaged with the topic, but it helps them to engage with you as a person. And when learners make that personal connection, they are more likely to learn from you.

The unexpected

However, not everything memorable is immediately relatable. A fantastical story that might bear no relation to your or my life – for example the one about the cryogenic preservation of bodies above (which you probably marked as difficult to empathise with) – might capture someone’s imagination.  Pieces of information that come to us from ‘left-field’ can often be quite memorable. When teaching the term ‘bare feet’, I often mention to students that Einstein didn’t wear socks because he had very large big toes that kept making holes in them.


I’ll talk about the use of the unexpected more in my next post on memorization which will be about ‘Repetition, retrieval and rehearsal’. In the meantime, here are three questions to remind yourself of the main points in this blog post …. and one lesser question!


1             What is the best ‘state’ for learners to be in to learn effectively?

2             Why is using topics that encourage empathy important?

3             When we talk about personalization, whose personal stories make learning memorable?

4             What strange fact about Einstein did you learn?


* Examples 1 and 4 do not really encourage empathy because, for most of us, it is difficult to empathize with the lives of rich and famous individuals. Examples 2 and 3 (taken from videos in LIFE Advanced 2nd edition) help us to understand the situation of people living in these places better.

Paul is the coauthor of National Geographic Learning’s best selling publication Life. Many of the examples from this post are from the second edition of Life which will be available in 2018. 



1             Stevick, E.W. (1996) Memory, Meaning and Method, 2nd edition (Heinle) pp 98-100



Author: Paul Dummett

Paul Dummett is a teacher and writer based in Oxford, UK, where he ran his own school teaching English to professionals from 1996 to 2006. He currently teaches refugee children in Palestine and Jordan with the Handsupproject. His main interests are the use of images and narrative in language teaching and how these can aid deeper learning and memory. Seeking out writing projects that explore these interests he has found a natural home at National Geographic Learning, co-authoring titles such as Life and Keynote , and acting as a Course Consultant for Look, a seven-level primary series from National Geographic Learning.

He enjoys travel, exercise and live music/spoken word performance.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.