The Role of Feelings in Learning.

Learning can often be a pleasurable experience, especially when it’s something that we are not only interested in, but also have a natural aptitude towards. We’ve all experienced occasions where we are so deeply engrossed in our work that the hours flick by very quickly – we lose all sense of time!

‘Flow’, is a popular term describing this experience, and occurs when one’s capabilities and interest levels are congruent with the work being completed. Generally pleasurable, the state of mind during flow is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, complete involvement and enjoyment.

Although the level of focus during flow results in productivity, the learning opportunity is arguably limited.

Conversely, we have all experienced times when our work feels laboured and provokes horrid feelings such as anxiety and stress. In these situations, unlike with flow, it is often because the task may be completely foreign to, and outside of one’s present skill set. The brain is stretching its capability and the learner may have thoughts of doubt in their ability.

Noel Burch’s theory on the 4 stages of competence helps explain this concept. His theory suggests learning to be typically the most uncomfortable (e.g. stressful) at the stage of ‘conscious incompetence’ (i.e. I have just realised I am not good at this). Subsequent mistakes can further compound feelings of stress and anxiety despite being critical to the learning process. The ego’s sense of competence can feel threatened – hence the accompanying negative feelings.

So with this in mind, several helpful insights can be made;

1) The feelings associated with learning are just a normal part of the learning process. Feelings and experiences such as boredom, flow, pleasure, stress and anxiety can all give an indication of the quality of learning experience.

2) Although flow may be good for productivity, it may not be the optimum state for learning. Feeling comfortable and having pleasant feelings accompanying the learning process suggests we are likely executing a skill set more or less within our repertoire.

3) Feelings of stress and anxiety do not mean impending failure. We need to remind ourselves that they are just feelings. Such feelings are likely an indication of entering a valuable learning experience.

I encourage you to stay tuned in with your feelings when you are next learning something new. After all, they may give you helpful insight into the nature of your learning experience! In the case of dealing with the more unpleasant feelings such as stress and anxiety, I encourage you to accept and normalise these feelings with the knowledge that you are most likely encountering a valuable learning experience!

So don’t give up and persist knowing that “No Pain = No Gain”!

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