In the mood for learning

27th January 2012 at 00:00
Dr Ellie Dommett explores how a pupil's state of mind can affect their ability to absorb information

We all know that sometimes, however motivated we may be to learn a particular thing, we are simply not in the mood for it. Research from the fields of neuroscience and psychology bears witness to this and provides insights that may be useful in the classroom.

One of the most prominent findings to date is that mood can affect cognitive processing. A positive mood can lead to increased cognitive flexibility, while a negative mood may have no impact or even reduce this flexibility. Cognitive flexibility allows a pupil to respond to differing task demands rather than sticking to a rigid approach. It also helps them to use information from other contexts. Indeed, this flexibility is a critical component of creativity.

Researchers at the University of Western Ontario in Canada recently investigated the relationship between mood and cognitive flexibility by comparing the effects of different moods on two types of learning. The first type of learning is thought to benefit from cognitive flexibility and to be dependent on parts of the brain that are important in hypothesis testing and rule selection (the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex). The second type of learning does not involve these skills and is thought to be dependent on two other areas (the basal ganglia and visual areas).

The researchers found that participants performed better on the first type of learning if they were in a positive mood. However, mood had no effect on the second type of learning. Therefore, learning that requires cognitive flexibility is likely to benefit considerably from a positive mood.

The results of this study are supported by a meta-analysis into the topic of mood and creativity by researchers at the University of Amsterdam. The analysis confirms that positive moods produce more creativity than neutral moods. Furthermore, creativity is enhanced most by positive moods associated with happiness rather than those associated with relaxation.

By contrast, negative moods such as sadness are not linked to creativity at all, while the negative moods of fear and anxiety are associated with lower creativity, especially when assessed as cognitive flexibility.

As such, where creativity is critical to a learning experience, an activating positive mood (happy) is preferable to a deactivating positive mood (relaxed).

Obviously, the way moods are induced in scientific studies - with exposure to specific stimuli such as uplifting or negative films - would be unethical in the classroom. But there may be other ways to induce a positive mood. For example, previous research has shown that exercise can improve creativity.

But what does this mean for the classroom? Clearly, it has interesting implications for how creative subjects or tasks are taught. However, there may also be implications for how individual learning experiences are organised or even how the school day is structured.

There are thought to be some learning experiences that would benefit from a less positive mood. For example, recent research at Tel Aviv University in Israel has shown that, where a participant is required to learn about a previously irrelevant subject, they do so more effectively when in a negative mood. The researchers suggest that this effect can in part be explained by positive moods broadening the attentional field while negative moods contract it.

Additionally, US researchers have found that artificial grammar tasks are better learned in a negative mood. They propose that a task that requires a very systematic, analytical, bottom-up approach (ie, relying only on the information presented) is facilitated by negative moods.

These findings indicate that careful organisation of learning experiences could be beneficial. Given that it is not possible to intentionally alter pupils' mood, it may be necessary to consider the different moods likely to be evoked by certain activities in order to optimise performance - for example, using a highly creative activity in a lesson straight after PE or break times to take advantage of the positive mood that may be induced by physical activity.

Dr Ellie Dommett is a lecturer at the Open University and co-author of the Learning and the Brain Pocketbook.


Baas, M. et al. "A Meta-Analysis of 25 Years of Mood-Creativity Research" (2008). Psychological Bulletin, 134 (6), 779-806

Lazar, J. et al. "Positive and Negative Affect Produce Opposing Task-Irrelevant Stimulus Pre-exposure Effects". Emotion, August 2011

Nadler, RT. et al. "Better Mood and Better Performance" (2010). Psychological Science, 21 (12), 1770-76

Pretz, JE. et al. "The Effects of Mood, Cognitive Style and Cognitive Ability on Implicit Learning" (2010). Learning and Individual Differences, 20 (3), 215-19

Steinberg, H. et al. "Exercise Enhances Creativity Independently of Mood" (1997). British Journal of Sports Medicine, 31 (3), 240-45.

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