Emotions in Adult Learning

This chapter discusses the role of emotions in adult transformative learning.

Key Points

  • Adult learning is a holistic process that involves rationality, body, and emotions.
  • Engaging emotions in adult learning can help foster transformative learning.
  • Learning through the body can improve emotional regulation and transformative learning.

Some Theory...

Emotion is important to adult learning

  • Transformative learning is the core of North American adult education. Transformative learning is defined as “a fundamental change or shift in our understanding of ourselves or our relationships with the world in which we live” (Dirkx, 2008, P15).
  • Emotions are deeply involved in transformative learning in two aspects:
    1. Given that critical thinking is accompanied by emotions (“aha” moments, sad realizations), emotions become central to transformative learning.
    2. In transformative learning leads to the development of new patterns of emotional responses are developed (Dirkx, 2006).

A Holistic Understanding of Learning

  • The process of learning in a holistic approach involves body, rationality, and emotions. These three elements are also affected by the learning environment and different learning approaches.
  • Interdependent relationships between emotions and transformative learning from a neuroscience perspective:
    • Recent research has found that emotions are indispensable for rationality, as no one can reason without emotions or feelings. Emotions emerge predominantly in the subcortical structures of the brain, but have an interdependent relationship with the neocortex, which can manage the cognitive process of the brain (Ledoux, 1989).Link to the Study
    • The transformative learning process is not a pure rational critical thinking process; it actually relies significantly on emotions (Taylor, 1998). Link to the Article
    • Long-term memory (implicit memory) stores conscious awareness of the individual. Research has reported that emotions can influence the decision-making process through emerging habits, attitudes, and preferences that are inaccessible to conscious recollection. It is shaped by former events and influences present behaviours (Taylor, 2001). Link to the Study

Embodied learning - Learning Through the Body

  • Embodied learning engages the body as a site of learning. It is a holistic way of learning as the learning occurs in social contexts and bodies, and not just in minds (Freiler, 2008). Researchers discovered that embodiment played a significant role in emotional regulation and knowledge construction. Link to the Study
  • Mannerkorpi and Gard (2003) conducted qualitative interview research with 19 patients with fibromyalgia (FM) who reported widespread pain, fatigue, stress, and struggle to learn how to manage their illness. Participants took part in a six-month pool exercise treatment, where they performed body exercises in the water. Results showed that the pool treatment was experienced as an embodied learning process. The positive experiences and relaxation of the body were beneficial for these patients leaving them with feelings of pleasure, peace and joyful social interactions while it also helped them to experience their physical capacity, acknowledged their limited capacity, and created new patterns for managing pain. Link to the Study
  • A study conducted by Ritter and Low (1996), showed that dance therapy worked effectively on developing body awareness, reducing anxiety and changing self-concept. Link to the Study


Historically, emotions were regarded as negative influences that effect teaching and learning. Recently, emotions are considered positive contributions to the learning processes such as motivation. Even though, the learning experience can evoke positive or negative emotions, the relationship between emotions and learning is complicated. Adult educators suggest integrating emotions in learning by understanding learning in a more holistic approach; however more time, effort and research is required to further explore and fully understand how emotions can affect adult learning.

Practical Suggestions

  • Apply embodied learning pedagogy in class.
  • Create a safe environment for learners to experience and recognize different feelings.
  • Build trusting relationships among learners and between teachers and learners, allowing an opportunity for individuals to share their feelings through their learning journey.



Dirkx, J. M. (2008). The meaning and role of emotions in adult learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2008(120), 7-18.

Dirkx, J. M. (2006). Engaging emotions in adult learning: A Jungian perspective on emotion and transformative learning. New directions for adult and continuing education, 2006(109), 15-26.