Making best use of the link between emotions and learning

The value of higher education has been questioned for the past few decades within the United States and the European Union. With the pandemic haunting most universities as they start the new academic year, many have been forced to move a significant portion of their education to a distance-learning format.

This adaptation is creating further doubts about the value of higher education. Most of this is the result of the traditional pedagogical approach to education, which pushes information at students to the detriment of knowledge retention and the development of key skills, such as critical thinking.

To achieve the learning outcomes that many programmes claim, university educators could transform their online learning into powerful developmental tools for their students by revisiting basic educational principles.

The fundamental challenges of knowledge retention

Graduates’ knowledge and skills have been questioned by many companies over the past few decades. Some major companies, such as the global publishing group Penguin Random House, have completely abandoned the need for a degree for new jobs. In business education, the advancement of technology has brought many new simulation tools and online learning systems. The major question remains: “Is the value of a university education worth the increasing costs?”

And, if you ask graduates how much they recall from their university education, most respond within 10% -25%, which is a horrific return on the investment of time and money. Even as many universities are pushing the concept of student-centred learning and curricula, recall of information remains poor. And, if recall is poor, what about the skills that were developed from the knowledge that has seemingly been forgotten? Were they ever really developed in the first place?

‘Cookie-cutter’ approach that strangles learning

The online learning environment often includes weekly discussions, reading materials and activities, such as simulations, pre-recorded lectures and assignments. Many online universities have been using this model to provide a consistent experience for students.

Within this model, the role of the instructor or professor is significantly reduced in many online universities. How do such models affect learning in a world of dynamic and complex problems like the pandemic and social justice issues that affect everyone?

The sad truth is that this model does little for learning. While easily scalable, it creates a ‘cookie-cutter’ factory of theoretical analysis with forgettable knowledge. Sadly, every student gets the same generic content with similar results.

From a marketing perspective, many universities speak about student-centred learning. However, the cookie-cutter factory is great at replicating student experiences with the same contents and assignments. Where exactly is the student-centred learning in such a situation? Is this experience worth replicating?

Let’s look at a simple example: a course in a masters-level business programme. A leadership course may contain great topics, such as ethical decision-making, that considers various stakeholder perspectives, including their cultural values.

It may draw on a case study designed to help students apply what they have learned. This case study, however, may have little, if any, meaning for the students on the course, especially while everyone is dealing with quarantine, face masks and protests for social justice.

The lack of meaning presents two problems in learning. First, learning requires an emotional attachment to new information. Without this, new information is likely to have a very low retention level. Over time, that retention diminishes further.

Second, critical thinking in real life always has an emotional connotation. Merely applying analysis objectively to a case study with limited information supplied does not reflect reality.

The combination of these two problems means students are taught theoretical analysis in a way that is completely separated from their lives.

Many business schools across the world use such case studies to help their students develop problem-solving skills. These case studies often have little to no meaning for the students. The value of such analyses are rarely ever applied in the real world, leaving out the implementation skills which are what make a world of difference to leaders.

When we repeat such experiences over and over again, the entire educational journey ends with limited retention of knowledge and even fewer crucial skills.

The role of educators

Much of higher education in the social sciences is trapped within this cookie-cutter approach in which each course is pre-designed and served up to students to digest with limited results.

The richness of current events, from the pandemic to social justice, can add tremendous value to the educational experience. This is where the instructor/professor can make a significant difference.

Depending on the course, the instructor/professor can adapt the case studies to current events and actions that could make a difference in the student’s life and those of their respective community.

Going back to the leadership course example, ethical decisions take on a completely different meaning when students are challenged to assess their own decisions in the face of things like the pandemic, the political environment and-or social justice issues. An instructor/professor could easily challenge students to reflect on their own decision-making concerning one or more of those areas and how they might lead by inspiring those around them to make better decisions.

This would create incredible meaning for the students that would encourage retention of knowledge and develop key skills, such as communication and emotionally charged critical thinking. When this is done within an entire curriculum, it delivers significantly more value to students and their prospective employers.

One major problem stands in the way of this approach: many universities in the US and EU, especially online ones, have policies that do not allow faculty to change pre-designed course activities, such as discussions and assignments. This is something that the university leadership needs to explore to remain competitive as students and employers demand more value from their education.

At university level, all faculties can make learning more meaningful and create practical value for their students. It is the responsibility of educators to make a lasting impact on their students.

The current world needs graduates who can think critically in emotionally charged situations. We need leaders who are proactive in preventing problems from occurring and who are not sitting around waiting for crises to occur.

To accomplish this, universities need to inspire and develop educators to transform the current cookie-cutter factory of education into an individualised educational model that is consistent with the student-centred learning message in their marketing.

Dr Ted Sun is the president of Transcontinental University, which is committed to making the student experience more meaningful and fun, while developing skills and intelligence. Feel free to email him at to explore further.