War and Sex capture our attention. Negative and arousing events both jolt our mental processing system. They cause us to forget what we are currently doing and force us to focus our attention on whatever follows.
Negative experiences demand our attention because they are consequential. They demand we quickly consider how we should respond to them. Because of their intensity, they embed themselves into our memory.
For example, I used to ride my bike every day when I was a child. However, I only remember one particular experience riding my bike – the day I broke my wrist during a crash while racing my bike through a field.
Negative information produces better memory for both pictures and sound. We remember negative images and sounds more accurately and quickly than positive ones.
As educators, we have the choice to create negative and compelling courses or positive and boring ones.
There is a problem, however, with using negative information to grab the attention of our students during our lessons.
Students will remember the negative information, but they will not like it. Also, they will remember the negative imagery, while not remembering the point of the lesson.
If you eat a dog turd, you will remember the experience for a long time, but you will not like the memory. Every time you think about it, you will associate negative emotions to the experience and to the bully that probably made you do it.
So, while negativity is compelling and one way to engage our students, it comes at the expense of their negative opinion of the course, without increasing their learning.
Another way to engage student attention and increase their memory is through arousal. We can be aroused emotionally through negative experiences like armed robbery and positive ones like sex.
Arousal is the volume control of our good or bad emotions. It ranges from energized and excited to calm and peaceful. Arousal is essentially biological. It affects our heart beat, our facial expressions, our speech patterns and our behavior.
The intensity of our emotions determines our level of motivation to act. To motivate our students, we need to increase the arousal and emotional intensity of their experience while taking our courses.
High arousal works like negativity. Arousing and negative experiences are the best remembered. Neutral and unexciting experiences are not remembered.
Intensely negative experiences arouse us emotionally and cause us to flee faster, fight harder and act more quickly to avoid or remove pain.
Intensely positive experiences like sex, roller coasters and watching fireworks arouse us and motivate us to approach a situation faster, fighter harder and act more quickly to experience pleasure.
Arousal is linked to rational thought. It is not possible to separate thinking from feeling. Thinking without arousal is not possible. Learning is most automatic and pleasurable when it is attached to emotional positive arousal.
Because arousal and thoughtfulness are both exhausting when sustained for long periods of time, we moderate our arousal to maintain an optimal level of excitement.
For example, when students are bored with homework, they will play video games for a while to increase their arousal and recharge their emotional batteries before they begin their biology lesson.
To capture and maintain the attention of our students, we must design courses which allow a student to moderate their level of arousal, while staying engaged in the lesson.
We should create activities with varying degrees of emotional intensity for each lesson. We need to give students the opportunities to move from activity to activity according to their need for excitement or calm.
We need to have high and low intensity activities for the students to choose from. If they get bored with a segment of direct instruction, we should have a game for them to play. When they get emotionally charged up with the game, they can move on to another activity to either increase or decrease their arousal to maximize the long-term impact of the lesson in their memory.
We should also offer personally important consequences for not finishing our entire course, which may take the form of charging money to take the course. We should also offer personally important rewards for finishing our course, such as badges, credits and public recognition.