Research Advice That’s New + Useful: Improve Learning by Reappraising...

Research benefits teachers if it gives us new, useful ideas.

We can feel relief and gratitude if research simply confirms our prior beliefs — that is, if it doesn’t give us “new” ideas — but we don’t necessarily reap substantial benefit from such confirmations.

A happy student wearing a vest, bow tie, and an upside-down colander on his head, holding a finger up in the air as lightbulbs glow around him

Likewise, research that offers a new perspective but doesn’t inform our teaching feels disappointing. If I can’t do something with the research-based perspective, I’m not sure why I should dwell on it very long. (Most teachers just don’t have time for pointless dwelling…)

So: our sweet spot is, “research that gives new, useful advice.”

Strangely, research into emotions and learning can struggle to fit both those criteria.

For instance, we’ve got lots of research saying—in effect—“don’t be mean to your students.”

That advice sounds useful (criterion #2), but not particularly new (criterion #1). How many people come to Learning and the Brain conferences thinking: “I wonder if research encourages me to taunt my nine-year-olds…”?

So too, I’m glad to see research saying that “the teacher’s sense of humor can lift students’ spirits.” At the same time, that research doesn’t offer much new information; does anyone seriously think that humor is a bad thing?

And I’m not sure how useful such research is. If a teacher isn’t especially funny, the advice “You, be funny!” doesn’t sound very practical. (It’s hard to learn to be taller; it’s also hard to learn to be funnier.)

Because I don’t often find emotion research in this “new + useful” sweet spot, I don’t often write on this topic.

Today’s News

One researcher who does work in the “new + useful” zone is Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh, currently at Simmons University.

In a recent study, she and colleagues explored this sensible logical chain:

First: if students feel better during class, they just might learn more.

Second: we’ve got strategies to help students feel better.

Third: so, let’s see if those “feel better” strategies work in class, and do help students learn more!

This plan sounds so sensible. In fact, depending on the study’s findings, it might give us advice that is “new + useful”!

To check out this possibility, Team Cavanagh used two different “feel better” strategies.

The first included “cognitive reappraisal.” Students got brief training in deliberately rethinking their negative experiences. For instance, they were shown this prompt:

“IF I find myself becoming irritated and frustrated with my progress, my professor, or my peers, or find myself feeling lost and confused, THEN I will instead think that the best rewards in learning occur by working through initial confusion.”

You can feel the deliberate reappraisal process here: “instead of thinking THIS, I’ll choose to think THAT.”

The second strategy to help students manage negative emotions is the (more familiar) mindful meditation perspective. As part of their training, students got this prompt:

“IF I find myself becoming nervous about my performance in answering questions in class or on quizzes or tests, or about my grade in the class, THEN I will instead let this nervousness be, accepting it as it is, not trying to change it or make it go away.”

Cavanagh also had a control group as well.

So, here are some of the key questions:

Did these “feel better strategies” work? Did the students rate their emotional state more positively after receiving them?

Did they help students learn more in the short term — that is, at the end of class?

How about the long term — that is, on the final exam?

What did Cavanagh’s team find?

So Many Envelopes

As you can see, Cavanagh’s study produced LOTS of data, and requires careful parsing.

To focus on a simple summary, Cavanagh found that most of those questions get the clear answer “NO.”

As in:

No, neither cognitive reappraisal nor mindful meditation improved the students’ ratings of their mood (compared to the control condition);

No, students didn’t think they learned any more — and (based on quiz results at the end of class) they didn’t learn any more.

Amidst all this “no” news, Cavanagh did get one “YES”:

Yes, students who used cognitive reappraisal (but not mindful meditation) remembered more information on the final exam.

In this one sentence, it seems to me, we’ve found research-based advice that’s both new + useful.

NEW: Although I’ve read about cognitive reappraisal in the past, I’ve never thought to train my students in doing so.

USEFUL: This intervention sounds quite simple to do…and produced the results I care about: long-term learning!

That’s a powerfully tempting combination.

Now I’m A Believer?

I don’t typically make strong recommendations based on one study. In this case, I’ve checked out my usual sources (,,, and found…not much. We just don’t have lots of research on the benefits of cognitive reappraisal in typical classrooms.

I am, however, drawn to this study for a few reasons.

First: the modesty of its conclusions inspires trust. Cavanagh’s own research disconfirmed most of her hypotheses — so I’m likelier to trust her and her team for the one that came through.

Second: it rhymes with other research I trust.

Specifically, mindful meditation has many enthusiastic proponents; I know lots of people who believe it will cure all sorts of school-based ills. However, as I wrote in 2022, an ENORMOUS study (8000+ participants!) showed essentially no benefit to mindfulness practices in schools.

I understand why this study included mindfulness as an option, and I don’t doubt there was real enthusiasm for this strategy. But Cavanagh got the same results as that 8000 person study. This congruence — in the face of such potential pressures — increases my confidence.


For all these reasons, I will keep an eye out for more research on cognitive reappraisal and its classroom benefits. If you try this strategy in your classroom, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes.

Cavanagh, S. R., Lang, J. M., Birk, J. L., Fulwiler, C. E., & Urry, H. L. (2021). A multicourse, multisemester investigation of the impact of cognitive reappraisal and mindfulness instruction on short-and long-term learning in the college classroom. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology7(1), 14.

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