What Do Feelings Have To Do With Science?

Learning which actions and emotions feel good and which feel bad happens at a young age. Some people believe this serves an evolutionary purpose–We tend to feel bad about lying because close relationships and trust are important for the continuity of our species. But sometimes, society teaches us to experience emotions in unhealthy ways. For instance, school has taught us to be ashamed and afraid of confusion and uncertainty. The purpose of an exam is to demonstrate what we know, not to articulate what we don’t. But those who are truly intimate with science disciplines know that confusion is what precedes the promise of new discovery. There is no shame in experiencing confusion. On the contrary, scientists purposefully seek it out. But subtle and not so subtle messaging tells students that uncertainty is tantamount to failure.

This experience, of attributing feelings to other feelings (e.g., feeling ashamed about feeling afraid), is what deBellis & Goldin (2006) call meta-affect. While they describe meta-affect in the context of mathematics learning, this construct can be applied broadly, to all forms of disciplinary learning. In our paper, “It’s scary but it’s also exciting”: Evidence of meta-affective learning in science, we propose the construct of meta-affect as a dimension of disciplinary learning.

In particular, we tell the story of a freshman engineering major named “Marya” who experienced an affective and epistemological transformation while taking a reformed introductory physics course. While Marya’s journey–from feeling anxious about uncertainty to feeling excited by it–was remarkable, it did not happen overnight. It took work for Marya and support from her instructors. But over time, she became more confident that feelings of elation were waiting for her at the end of a long struggle. And knowing that discovery felt even sweeter because of the struggle, Marya soon began to seek out more challenges. Over time, she slowly began to enjoy the struggle itself.

Watching and listening to Marya has inspired us. We know that we owe it to our students to help them experience our classrooms as safe places to take risks, to struggle, to feel. But that has us, often, feeling uncertain—about how we are succeeding with students, about how they and our colleagues assess our efforts. Marya inspires us to recognize that those struggles, too, can be part of what we love about our work.

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