I am not stupid,” he says emphatically at the beginning of the tutoring session. The first time a declaration along similar lines was made by a student visiting the writing studio, I was taken aback. “Of course, not,” I answered. “What makes you think that?”
“Back home,” he says,” I was my father’s right-hand man in his contracting business. I solved everyone’s problems. Now, I am falling behind in my classes. I do not understand how to do assignments.” His voice rises, “I know nothing!”
The consideration that one lacks the necessary intelligence for proceeding with initiative is usually the beginning of a downward trajectory. Lately, this sort of scenario has begun to repeat itself more frequently, specifically with non-traditional students. In fact, the adjective “non-traditional” is fast becoming a misnomer, as non-traditional students become the “new majority,” accounting for more than 71% of all students in postsecondary education in the United States; however, 67% of non-traditional students drop out before degree completion, stressing the need for more intentional and targeted instructional strategies to address the issue (MacDonald, 2018; Riccardo, 2022). As educators in the field of higher education today, we are led towards several questions, the most important of which is: Is there a failure to understand the crucial and circular cause-effect relationship between emotions, cognition, and academic success?
The link is by no means a recent discovery, as Plato once wrote, “All learning is emotional.” Until the twentieth century, the connection between emotions, cognition, and learning was considered more suitable for a philosophical debate (Okon-Singer et al., 2015). The advent of brain mapping through imaging seemed to further bifurcate brain functions, seeing the limbic system as diametrically opposed to the prefrontal cortex (Meacham, 2014).
Emotions were considered “an additional variable” indicating “irrational aspects” of the human brain not relevant to cognitive functions of the brain (Zhao & Song, 2022, p. 1). Recent neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), electroencephalography (EEG), and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) have brought into clearer focus the architecture and functioning of the brain and have established a more symbiotic relationship between its anatomical parts of the brain. Hemispheric lateralization is clearly a misconception (Tyng et al, 2017).
Progressing beyond theory, practical implications of the interconnectedness of the brain emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The concept of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to strengthen neural pathways and master difficult tasks through sustained practice—had been steadily evolving since the end of the 1900s and forms the basis of many influential theories of learning today (Ackerman, 2022).
Carol Dweck’s research on a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset; Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy as intrinsically connected to a student’s academic success; and the more recent findings by Stanford’s neuroscientist Andrew Huberman (2021) who highlighted the synergistic nature of the entire brain by tracing the complex pathway of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for reward expectation and motivation to proceed towards the reward. The common factor of crucial importance in the above theories of learning is that cognition and intelligence were malleable as affected by emotional states. Certain emotional states invited motivational sustained effort, while others led to relinquishment of effort.