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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Harnessing Affect and Cognition in an Online Course


Instructors who teach online courses are often well aware that they need to employ instructional activities that harness the powerful relationship between cognition and emotion. Without engaging emotions, it is very difficult to motivate students. It is even difficult to capture the students’ interest enough to bring about conditions needed for learning to take place.

Understanding the psychological theories of affect is key. Certain questions must be examined:

1. How do emotional states arise?

2. How can one state be replaced by another?

Emotional states are triggers. The interactions between emotions and cognition give rise to flows of thoughts. If the e-learning space can set in motion both feelings and thoughts, then there exists the potential to have a very positive experience.

Here are other questions that come to mind:

1. What technique or action can help shape or guide the flows of thoughts as they move toward meaning-making cognitive processes?

2. What are the elements in an online environment most likely to engage emotions and help or compel the student to transition from one emotional state to another?

In order to gain an appreciation of the connections between external emotional triggers found in the environment (for example, in an e-learning space or environment), and mental properties, it is necessary to step back and tease apart the causal relations.

According to philosopher of mind Paul Thagard, thinking is usefully understood as “simultaneously involving numerous representations that constrain each other” (Thagard 2002, p. 275). For Thagard, the relationship between emotions and cognition can be mathematically represented as a series of contingencies, or causal relations, and the equations involve weighting the variables, which could include features, traits, behaviors as well as the cognitive processing act of creating analogy and categorization. For Thagard, how the factors are weighted (or mediated) is heavily influenced by emotion.

What are the implications for e-learning?

If one accepts Thagard’s idea that it is possible to predict or model the chain of thoughts that could propel an individual to a different emotional state, the implications for e-learning are clear.

In order to create an ideal learning environment, with sufficient affective engagement to be both motivating and to trigger flows of cognition, thought, mental processing, and meaning-making, it is necessary to have a fairly good sense of the learners, their values, and the pacing of the activities so that the thoughts and emotions stay dynamic.

The dynamic emotion-cognition relationship can be represented in a four-phase or four-stage model as represented below:

Phase I: The Triggering Cognitive Event

example: Seeing Katrina damage to New Orleans

Phase II: Cognitive Determinants

example: what was the damage? was the damage done by humans? did the levees break because of negligence or simple act of God? was the damage controllable? did anyone do anything to control it? was there a higher purpose in seeing the damage? are there any “lessons learned”?

Phase III: Emotions

example: anger, sadness, shock, outrage

Phase IV: Thoughts in Response: Cognitive Determinants with Emotions

example: start asking questions; where was FEMA? could this have been prevented? is anyone to blame? who was hurt and why? who are they? what are the connections to one’s own experiences? beliefs?

In addition to using the model to develop instructional activities that encourage deep learning, it could be applied to experiential learning.

It could also be used to help writing students become aware of when a specific emotion is being evoked in order to develop a persuasive argument. One a very basic level, Thagard and the other philosophers of mind who suggest that the relationship between cognition and emotions can be mapped are echoing Aristotle’s writing on rhetoric. I do not want to leave out Plato, as well. The primary difference between classical rhetoric and the computational models used to describe the relationship between cognition and emotion is one of degree, not of concept. The goal of any mathematical model is consistent alignment with the phenomenal event; and, thus an eventual high level of reliability and goodness of fit. Eventually, one could use the mathematical model to predict responses.

What would be useful at this point would be research that would gauge how and when emotions and cognition could be considered to be mappable in the four phases of the example, and how elastic the model can be and still have instructional utility, given diverse students, instructors, and contexts.

Reference / Useful Works

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Cognition and motivation in emotion. American Psychologist, 46, 352-367.

Lerner, J. S. & Keltner, D. (2001). Fear, anger, and risk. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 146-159.

Port, R., & van Gelder, T. (Eds.). (1995). Mind as motion: Explorations in the dynamics of cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Scherer, K. R., Schorr, A., & Johnstone, T. (2001). Appraisal processes in emotion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thagard, P. (2000). Coherence in thought and action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Thagard, P. & Nerb, J. (2002). Emotional Gestalts: Appraisal, change, and the dynamics of affect. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 6 (4), 274-282.

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