School Kids’ Memory Is Better For Material Delivered With Enthusiasm, Because It Grabs Their Attention

By Emma Young

Like countless other parents across the UK, I’m finding it pretty hard to maintain enthusiasm for my kids’ home-schooling lessons. Or muster it, for that matter. Yet we all know that when an instructor is enthusiastic, those sessions are more enjoyable — and we remember more. While this might be common knowledge, however, “the underlying mechanisms for the favourable effects of teacher enthusiasm are still largely unknown,” write Angelica Moè at the University of Padova, Italy, and her colleagues, in their new paper in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. The team therefore set out to better understand its power. And in a series of studies, they explored the idea that attention is key — that a more enthusiastic delivery grabs pupils’ attention more, which improves their memory for the material.

In an initial study, German children aged 8 to 12 listened to a trained instructor read two brief texts, one of which was a description of the characteristics of dragonflies, the other a story about a farmer. The instructor read with either low enthusiasm (a monotone voice, few or no body movements, fixed facial expression, eyes fixed on the text) or high enthusiasm (exuberant movements, excited and varied vocal delivery, shining eyes oriented towards the children, varied facial expressions). The team found that kids in the high enthusiasm condition not only reported enjoying both texts more — and smiled more — but were also spent more time looking at the instructor, suggesting they were more attentive.

Next, a total of 54 Italian pupils aged 9 to 11 underwent a very similar procedure, except that some had to complete a task that required their attention at the same time. (They had to spot and circle pictures of bells, which were among other small pictures on an A4 sheet). For the kids who were not given this extra task — i.e. those whose attention wasn’t already tied up — those in the high enthusiasm group showed better recall of the texts when questioned afterwards than those in the low enthusiasm group. However, the experimenter’s enthusiasm level had no impact on the bell-circlers’ recall, “thus showing that attention is among the underlying mechanisms explaining the positive effect of enthusiasm on recall,” the researchers write.

A final study using the same texts found that when a distracting task doesn’t require sustained attention — in this case, some kids were asked simply to touch corners of their desk in a clockwise direction, instead of circling bells — greater instructor enthusiasm did make for better later recall for the narrative text. This provides further evidence that an enthusiastic delivery style improves recall “only when a secondary task is not competing for the students’ attention”, the team writes.

So what are the implications of these findings? Some people — and some teachers — are naturally more enthusiastic than others. But it is possible to learn to be more demonstrative and engaging, both physically and verbally. So perhaps there’s a case for arguing that more naturally reserved teachers might be encouraged to consciously try to be more enthusiastic — but not necessarily all the time.

The results suggest that high enthusiasm is only important when the listeners aren’t simultaneously paying attention to something else. So while extra enthusiasm during a lecture could help students to enjoy the lecture more, pay more attention to the content and learn better, it would not help students engaged in a practical challenge, for example. “This is an important message for those who believe they should be enthusiastic at any cost, but who may suffer from a constant, effortful up-regulation of positive emotions,” the team notes. “Our results demonstrate that they may ‘economize’ their efforts of up-regulating their enthusiasm and do so only in situations where students are not engaged in tasks competing for their attention.”

Economise the efforts of up-regulation… Well, perhaps that’s something I can try at home.

Displayed enthusiasm attracts attention and improves recall

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest