Using Emotional Engagement to Enhance Student Engagement

Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL

10 September 2019

Engaging students emotionally has substantial pedagogical advantages, such as eliciting greater interest in the material taught, which can engender a heightened motivation to learn. What teaching strategies can we employ to engage students emotionally?

In the first blog post this academic year from CIRL, I outline a way that moral dilemmas can be used in the teaching of ethics as a means of developing learning through emotional engagement. This is based on a case study I conducted in an A Level philosophy lesson taught in collaboration with the psychology department at Queen Anne’s School. The full case study was published in Impact: Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching and is readable here. Some of the pedagogical techniques could be extrapolated to other subjects.

A runaway tram is on course to collide with five people on the tracks ahead. You, a bystander, are near a lever which you could pull to divert the tram onto different tracks, on which there’s one person. If you pull the lever, one dies; if you do nothing, five die. Should you pull the lever?

Imagine the same scenario, but instead of pulling a lever you face the predicament of whether to push a very large man off a bridge into the path of the tram. This will prevent it killing the five but the man will die at your hand. Should you push him?

These thought experiments are a great place to start when teaching normative ethics. They can be utilised to introduce normative theories and often engender emotional responses. Among the advantages of the latter is that emotional engagement can be used to aid students’ learning about the former.

The first is known as the ‘trolley problem’, devised by Philippa Foot.[1] Of the many variants proposed, the second – Judith Jarvis Thomson’s ‘Fat Man’ case – is perhaps the most famous and useful for emotional engagement.[2] In terms of casualties, the problems are identical: you choose between letting five die or killing one.

Most people new to these are far more reluctant to push the man, even if they’re confident they’d pull the lever. This is unsurprising; proximity tends to make a difference to our moral intuitions; the more intimately we have to participate in something morally questionable, the less likely we are to do it. Hence, when we have to make physical contact with a person rather than operating a device, it’s unsurprising that we’re reluctant to pursue what we might take to be the rational course of action.

The dilemmas can be used to elicit students’ moral intuitions about such hypothetical scenarios. It’s easy to connect the problems with important ideas in ethics, particularly two types of normative theory: duty-based (‘deontological’) theories, principally that of Immanuel Kant;[3] and act utilitarianism, first formally outlined by Jeremy Bentham.[4] The basic tenets of each can be introduced by illustrating the different ways each theory approaches the dilemmas.

The problems often stimulate students emotionally. Some become outraged when others claim they wouldn’t pull the lever; more become outraged when others confidently assert they’d push the man. Many become frustrated at the apparent inconsistency between endorsing the position that one ought to pull the lever but not push the man. Some respond by trying to use proximity to justify their actions, arguing that physical contact is a morally significant difference. Students who begin by confidently stating they’d pull the lever tend to withdraw once they see that this might commit them to pushing the man. If they maintain that physical contact constitutes a morally significant difference, the latter scenario can be modified to avoid this. For example, imagine a trapdoor underneath the man on the bridge which the bystander can open via a lever.

Engaging students emotionally has substantial pedagogical advantages. Students will typically be more intrigued by material and gain interest. It’s easier to generate discussion – the lifeblood of philosophy – among an emotionally stimulated group. The emotions needn’t be positive: getting students angry or sad about a topic can motivate interest more than positive feelings; and eliciting negative emotions can engender a positive emotional or cognitive response to the overall learning experience, such as excitement or fascination.

Students’ interest can extend towards the rest of the course or even ethics in general. It’s no surprise that Michael Sandel frames the opening lecture of his popular ‘Justice’ course at Harvard around the trolley problem (over 15,000 students have taken it). His lecture is structured in much the same way as above: the trolley problem; the ‘Fat Man’ case and the modified ‘trapdoor’ version; an introduction to utilitarianism and Kantian deontology; and, finally, an introduction to ethics and political philosophy.[5]

Research in educational neuroscience and psychology supports the claim that emotional engagement has pedagogical benefits. Research has shown that cognitive and emotional engagement is associated with positive outcomes for student success, including academic achievement.[6] Emotions can spread among peers via ‘emotional contagion’: the transference of moods within a group and the subsequent influence on behaviour.[7] This phenomenon is observable in the ways in which an excitable atmosphere spreads in a heated discussion of the trolley problem.

Heightened emotional involvement helps make the material and the learning experience more memorable. A recent article reviewing neuroscientific studies on the impact of emotion on learning suggests that emotionally stimulating events are remembered more clearly, accurately and for longer periods of time than emotionally neutral events.[8] The evidence suggests that engaging students with material on an emotional level is likely to lead to better memory recall in the long-term.

One way to teach a lesson of the kind described is to give small groups variant cases of the problem with very short times to respond, followed by discussions of their reasoning. Having to commit to decisions about each dilemma encourages students to be more emotionally invested in the problems and more attentive to the lesson content.

A lesson of this kind could be taught collaboratively between philosophy and psychology departments. When this lesson was taught at Queen Anne’s School, teachers from the psychology department explained the psychological and neurological underpinnings behind our reactions to the dilemmas, such as why we typically find it harder to push the man than pull the lever. The physical interaction with a human being tends to stimulate the emotional centre of the brain, which can promote a greater sense of empathy and, in most cases, influences people to feel reluctance towards pushing the man, even if they would readily pull the lever.

Students gave positive feedback about this lesson. They responded positively to the emotionally active environment and the collaborative nature of the teaching. Students reported that they remembered the content of the lesson more clearly and were able to recall it more readily because it was more emotionally stimulating than their usual lessons, which made it a more memorable experience.

This lesson led to the teachers of A Level philosophy and A Level psychology at Queen Anne’s trying other collaborative lessons, with the aim of promoting emotional engagement. For instance, a collaborative lesson was taught on how the mind can be understood to be divisible into parts, by appeal to concepts in Freudian psychology and cases of dissociative identity disorder. These were explored as potential counterexamples to René Descartes’ ‘indivisibility argument’, which claims that the mind is not divisible into parts.[9]

Emotional engagement can be a highly advantageous educational tool. Any good pedagogue knows the best ways to engage their students; among the most important tools in their skillset to achieve this will be methods of eliciting emotional responses. Getting students emotionally engaged in philosophy is sometimes difficult, given the abstract nature of the subject matter; but where possible, it should be utilised, given the pedagogical benefits. The case described above illustrates one area where it’s relatively easy to stimulate students emotionally and the benefits are clear for effective learning.

This blog post excerpts sections from Jonathan Beale’s article, ‘Developing Effective Learning through Emotional Engagement in the Teaching of Ethics’ (Impact, Issue 3, 2018, pp. 56-7). CIRL would like to thank the Chartered College of Teaching for permission to re-publish sections of this article.


[1] Philippa Foot, ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect’ (Oxford Review, 5, 1967, pp. 1-5).

[2] Judith Jarvis Thomson, ‘The Trolley Problem’ (The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 94, No. 6, 1985, pp. 1395-1415).

[3] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals [Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten] (revised ed.; translated and edited by Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012 [1785]); Critique of Practical Reason [Kritik der praktischen Vernunft] (translated by Werner S. Pluhar) (Cambridge: Hackett, 2002 [1788]).

[4] Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Mineola, NY: Dover Classics, 2007 [1780]).

[5] Michael Sandel, ‘Justice: The Moral Side of Murder’ (published online 4 Sept 2009), available at: <http://justiceharvard.org/themoralsideofmurder/> (accessed 3 March 2018).

[6] M. E. Bulger, R. E. Mayer, K. C. Almeroth and S. D. Blau, ‘Measuring Learning Engagement in Computer-equipped College Classrooms’ (Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 17(2), 2008, pp. 129-143).

[7] See Sigal G. Barsade, ‘Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior’ (Adminstrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 4, 2002, pp. 644-75).

[8] C. M. Tyng, H. U. Amin, N. M. N. Saad and A. S. Malik, ‘The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory’ (Frontiers in Psychology, 2017) (DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01454).

[9] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy [Meditationes de Prima Philosophia], (Revised Ed., translated and edited by John Cottingham) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 [1641]), Meditation VI.

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