Emotions and Memory

Emotions and Memory

What is the link between how our students feel and how much they learn? Is this something teachers can tap into? Essentially, how can we use emotions to enhance learning and memory in the classroom?

How Do Emotions Develop in Young Children?

An early study asked children to tell which emotions different fictional characters were feeling during a story. Results showed that the older the child, the better they were at identifying when someone was feeling sad, afraid or angry.

Interestingly, however, there was no such correlation regarding positive emotions; children as young as 3 were already really good at identifying when someone was feeling happy. This finding suggests that the processing of positive emotions develops earlier than that of negative emotions.

The Link Between Emotions and Memory

Recent research on 10-12 year-old children had a more accurate memory for positive videos in comparison to negative ones. A similar pattern was found with younger children when asked to recall the words of stories.

Positive emotions seem to protect children from false memories. A study published last year showed scripted cartoons to 6-12 year-old children. The cartoons could have a positive, negative, or neutral ending. Those who had seen the positive ending had more accurate memories than those who had seen the neutral or negative ones.

Positive information seems to be memorised in more details, reducing the probability of false memories. Similarly, another study showed that children were not only better at remembering the positive words, but they were also less prone to errors when the new word was positive.

What Does This Mean In The Classroom?


We have previously blogged about the many ways to improve memory and learning. These include, but are not limited to, retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving as well as reading things aloud and explaining key concepts to yourself. However, none of these tap into this research on having an emotional connection to the material. To remedy this, the two strategies below may help:

Boost Memory with Positive Reappraisal

The research described here seems to suggest that it is important to not only create a happy environment, but to also add positive emotions into the content being taught. One possible way of doing this is using a strategy known as ‘Positive Reappraisal’.

Positive Reappraisal is when students reinterpret an event as more positive than it initially was. In one study where a group of children watched a sad film, part of the group were asked to re-imagine the ending in a positive light and part of the group were simply asked to wait for the next film. Later, all children watched an educational film. Children that had used positive reappraisal showed better memory for the educational film than the control group. This finding suggests that thinking of something in a positive light can enhance learning.

In the classroom, whenever pupils are struggling with memorising something, they may be instructed to add positivity to that information. For example, they may use it to create a funny phrase, or link it to something they like.

Boost Memory By Creating Curiosity

Another way of using positive emotions to enhance learning is to invest in curiosity. A couple of years ago, a study showed that the feeling of expectancy before learning something interesting enhances memory. Remarkably, participants memorised not only the information they were curious about but also unrelated facts that were presented during the anticipation period. The authors described this finding as a “curiosity vortex”.

Final Thought

Children seem to learn better amidst positive emotions. Creating an environment that taps into this can aid, enhance and accelerate their learning. Tapping into their natural curiosity, or relating the material in a positive way, promises to be good steps in the right direction in this area.

Why not visit our page about developing growth mindsets to learn more about other positive approaches to learning?

We would like to thank Flavia Belham for writing most of this blog. Flavia did a PhD on emotions and memory at UCL, and is now chief scientist at Seneca Learning. We think she is pretty awesome and definitely worth following on Twitter: @FlaviaBelhamPhD

Memory and learning teacher CPD workshops

Sign up to our blogs and free education infographic posters

our brochure

Free ebook about the best ways to revise