Skip to main content

This is Part 3 of a three-part blog. Part 1 explores the Hebraic understanding of the heart to reclaim a vision for the transformational and life-giving education that occurs when educators acknowledge students’ whole selves—intellect and emotions included. Part 2 uses neuroscience to further explore the nature and role of emotions in learning, and Part 3 offers suggestions concerning how educators might positively engage emotions in the classroom by targeting 4 key relationships.

Emotions are driven by perceptions which are in turn socially derived. Since we’ve established the need for a pedagogy that employs positive emotions, and the theological and scientific basis for pedagogy driven by and for love, it is helpful to note that, biblically, love is always experienced within the context of relationships. Take, for instance, Matthew 22: 37–40 (NIV): “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”1

Consequently, Quinlan’s “How Emotion Matters in Four Key Relationships in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education” provides a helpful relationship-centric framework to explore what loving pedagogy might practically look like within higher education. Quinlan suggests four key relationships in which teachers might consider positive emotions: student-subject, student-teacher, student-student, and student-with their developing self.2


When it comes to garnering positive emotions in the student-subject relationship, we have found student behavior and excitement tend to mirror our own. When professors teach with enthusiasm and energy—as if they love the subject—students tend to love the subject too. On the other hand, apathetic or bitter teachers tend to inspire comparable emotions in their students. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, tends to create an upward or downward spiral of positive or negative affect, especially in smaller classes.3 In terms of fostering a classroom environment conducive to positive emotion, our advice to teachers is this: Practice emotional awareness—for yourself and your students—both when you design activities and assessments as well as when you teach. Are your practices cultivating a love or a fear of learning? Are infrequent high-stakes exams testing students’ mastery of content or merely their ability to cope with task-related anxiety? Do you tend to blame students, even if only in your mind, when classes don’t go quite as planned? These are critical questions, the answers to which have deeply affective consequences for students’ relationships with the subject.


Similarly, teachers’ behaviors are determinant of students’ positive or negative emotional attachments within the student-teacher relationship. Students’ perceptions of their teachers as caring people influence not just the student-teacher relationship but also the student-subject relationship. Consequently, simple practices like using students’ names, greeting them at the door, thanking them for meaningful presence and engagement, and acknowledging—via specific written or verbal feedback—when a student has opted to disclose a relevant detail of their personal life within an assignment or activity can fundamentally alter a student’s relationship with you as their teacher and, consequently, learning.


Within higher education, learning is inevitably a communal endeavor. Students make sense of the world around them within the contexts of their social relationships, and positive emotions open students’ minds to new material and relationships. Students are more willing to offer their experiences and perspectives within comfortable relational contexts, and such diverse perspectives are the basis of cognitive dissonance, which requires students to think in new ways (i.e., to learn).

Psychologically, Frederickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions suggests positive emotions broaden individuals’ momentary thought–action repertoires resulting in mindsets that subsequently promote the discovery of novel and creative actions, ideas, and social bonds. In surfacing new actions, ideas, and social bonds, students effectively build out critical intellectual and relational resources they will draw upon in the future. Conversely, negative emotions within peer relationships result in threat-avoidant behaviors that, even if only momentarily, limit sharing and reduce learning. Consequently, spending a few minutes in every class on some sort of activity that allows students to engage one another personally is hardly wasted time. Moreover, setting some basic ground rules for in-class discussions can help ensure students are affirmed in their interactions with their peers. Teachers may even go so far as to require students to begin their responses to one another by using each other’s names alongside a statement of gratitude, even amidst disagreement (e.g., “Susan, I appreciate your point about x, y, z. Though my conclusion is not the same, I think your logic applies to a, b, c. I’d never considered that before.”).

Student-Developing Self

When it comes to positive emotion and learning, one of the most impactful relationships is that of the student and their developing self. At the heart of this relationship are matters of identity and motivation. Hopes, dreams, and desires are some of the most deeply affective aspects of our students’ selves, yet we often don’t ask about them. Think about the first-day introductions that you’ve likely sat through and facilitated hundreds of times. If they’re anything like ours, they go something like this: Tell us your name, grade, major, and a fun fact.

Immordino-Yang and Damasio claim, “Knowledge and reasoning divorced from emotional implications and learning lack meaning and motivation and are of little use in the real world. Simply knowing [intellect] does not imply a student will be able to use it advantageously outside of school.”4 If we hope to see long-term transformation in our students, perhaps we should spend time seeking to understand what they already love so we can intentionally connect our course material to students’ cares as we teach. Perhaps then we will have ready answers (and many) to the proverbial, “why are we learning this?” question. Though it may take some effort to get to know our students in this way, it needn’t be burdensome (e.g., perhaps a simple survey to be completed before the first-class meeting or a more thoughtful icebreaker like “what drives you?” or “how does what you want to do contribute to who you want to be today and in the future?”).  Expending a little effort here actually frees teachers from having to convince students of the importance of the material by forcing or fabricating inauthentic emotional connections, which takes an exhausting amount of creativity.

Stop & Reflect

Our prayer for ourselves and you, our fellow teachers, is that we would bring Heaven not just to Earth, but to our very classrooms. Building on the words of Jonathan Edwards, Sam Storms suggests Heaven is characterized by Joy’s Eternal Increase, an observation he connects to ever-increasing knowledge and the cultivation of love. He says,

With increased knowledge comes intensified love. As understanding grows, so too does affection and fascination. With each new insight comes more joy, which serves only to stoke the fires of celebration around the throne . . . . When the soul is filled with ever-increasing depths of knowledge, love, joy, and worship, the more it is conformed to the image of Christ . . . . New ideas, new revelation, new insights, new applications, together with new connections between one idea and another all lead to deeper appreciation for God and thus fuel the flames of worship. And just when you think you’re going to explode if you learn anything more or hear anything fresh or see anything new, God expands your heart and stretches your mind and broadens your emotions and extends every faculty to take in yet more and more and more, and so it goes forever and ever.

As we have practically considered if and how our classrooms are places befitting of Storms’s vision of Heaven, several simple questions have proven quite helpful for identifying the pedagogical practices by which we do (or don’t) intentionally engage students’ positive emotions, namely love, within Quinlan’s four key relationships:5

(1) Do you love your subject?

a. How do your students know?

(2) Do you love your students?

a. How do your students know?

(3) Do your students love each other?

a. How do you cultivate meaningful relationships?
b. How do you make learning an interdependent process?
c. How do you ensure student interactions are positive (in affect)?

(4) Do you know what your students love?

a. How do you know?
b. How do you connect your course content/activities to these loves?

While we suspect at least the first two header questions will warrant emphatic and unhesitating “yes”-es, from most CSR readers, we doubt the blog would exist if teachers didn’t at times struggle with the practicalities of the “how.” Personally, we have found when we struggle to answer the “how” questions with a wide array of tangible practices, the emotional climates of our classrooms are far from positive. In such seasons, our classrooms hardly resemble Heaven. Our energy lags—as does our students’—and learning becomes lifeless as we together struggle to realize our fullest potential as God’s image bearers. Yet, as we’ve sought to reinvigorate our classrooms with loving pedagogy that intentionally honors and cultivates God-given positive emotions within key relationships, we have rediscovered just how life-giving teaching and learning can be for us and our students. To this end, we’ve provided some tangible recommendations, and we humbly invite you to join us as we critically evaluate our pedagogical tendencies in pursuit of being teachers who educate with and for heart!


  1. Note: Love, in the context of the first commandment, is a matter of the “heart” and “soul” and is intellectual, affective, and enacted (See post 1). Moreover, God’s commands to love are given clear priority in the Bible (See post 2). Here, we clearly observe and add that both commandments to love are situated in the context of relationships.
  2. Kathleen M. Quinlan, “How Emotion Matters in Four Key Relationships in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education,” College Teaching 64, no. 3 (2016): 101–111.
  3. Eva Susann Becker, Thomas Goetz, Vinzenz Morger, and John Ranellucci, “The Importance of Teachers’ Emotions and Instructional Behavior for Their Students’ Emotions–An Experience Sampling Analysis,” Teaching and Teacher Education43 (2014): 15–26.
  4. Immordino-Yang and Damasio, “We Feel, Therefore We Learn,” 9.
  5. Note: Additional relationships could be explored within academic spaces. For instance, we have not explicitly referenced one’s relationship with God, despite our understanding  that it qualifies as a key relationship for many of our readers. That said, we believe the four selected relationships serve to prompt teachers at all types of institutions—faith-based or otherwise—to consider how their Christian faith might practically inform loving pedagogical practices.

Jessica Martin

Baylor University
Jessica Martin is currently earning her Ph.D. in Higher Education Studies & Leadership at Baylor University. She holds an M.A. in Higher Education & Student Affairs along with a B.S. in Medicinal & Biological Chemistry (and a minor in Theology).

Scott Gaier

Scott Gaier is the Director of Academic Enrichment and also Professor of Higher Education at Taylor University, Upland, IN.