Read below for an overview of my book The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotionpublished by West Virginia University Press. It is the first book in James M. Lang’s series on cognitive science and learning in higher education, which you can read about here.

The book can be ordered on Amazon here.



If you’d like to hear more or discuss speaker engagements, please do contact me at sarahDOTroseDOTcavanaghATgmailDOTcom.



When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.(link is external)” – Dale Carnegie

I sat in my first college class with pen nervously poised, ready to absorb every word my professor had to say. I imagined that he would stand at the front of the class and stiffly, yet drolly – and preferably with an English accent – impart the wisdom of his many years in the field of psychology. Instead, the late, great Michael Fleming of Boston University stalked into the room with all the zeal of a velociraptor. He spent the following semester alternately delighting and terrorizing us – with shocking tales straight from the therapist’s couch; hissed, Mystery Science Theater style psychological commentary on scenes from popular movies; and by gleefully creeping up on sleeping students to startle them awake. It was my favorite class of a very long educational career, and it was a rollercoaster of emotions.

The lay assumption seems to be that learning is a dry, staid affair best conducted in quiet tones and ruled by an unemotional consideration of the facts, and historically we have constructed our classrooms and working environments with this assumption in mind. But I will argue that we learn – and work – at an optimal level when our emotions are fully engaged. Moreover, I’ll argue that even when a calm, careful approach is indicated (such as at the laboratory bench), we still do our best work when motivated by underlying emotional forces.
College Education Knowledge Learning Studying Concept

Indeed, many emotion scientists believe that emotions are the most basic, essential motivators – that they evolved in order to drive us toward things that are advantageous for our survival and reproduction (high-calorie foods, attractive sex partners) and repel us from things that are potentially hazardous (rotten meat, venomous spiders). They do so in a way that is often not subject to our insight or control, and emotions can at times be so powerful that they hijack our entire cognitive and motivational systems. Anyone skeptical that emotions can take the driver’s rather than the passenger seat has never been in love, or experienced true grief. This centrality of emotion is what led scientist Elaine Fox to make the bold claim “emotions are at the heart of what it means to be human”.

The field of education is beginning to awaken to the potential power of emotions to fuel learning, informed by contributions from psychology and neuroscience. At the forefront of this charge is Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, educational psychologist and recipient of the Award for Transforming Education through Neuroscience. She argues that we need to consider social and emotional forces even when assigning something as seemingly unemotional as a physics problem. She details how emotions play a role in each step of tackling the problem: spurring motivation to get started, determining persistence, managing anxieties that one may not be able to solve the problem, and finally following a strategy to solve the problem that feels the most rewarding.

Thus, we can enhance the motivation, attention, memory, and productivity of our students by understanding – and then harnessing – the power of emotion. Not only will they learn better, but exploiting emotional power could also yield a truly transformative life experience.

2 thoughts on “Book

  1. Thanks for sharing this overview. I look forward to reading the book and will also share it with my granddaughter, Courtney, who is a teacher and an avid reader.

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