Top Hat is the active learning platform that makes it easy for professors to engage students and build comprehension before, during and after class. This interview is part of our recurring series “Academic Admissions” where we ask interesting people to tell us about the transformative role education has played in their lives.

For Sarah Rose Cavanagh, life as an educator was always in the cards. Since childhood, the psychologist, professor and writer invariably found herself drawn to teaching, no matter how hard she tried to carve out a research-oriented career. In 2016, those two interests combined to shape the thesis of her first book, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. In it, Cavanagh argues that engaging emotions is vital to helping students learn more effectively. Not everyone agreed. But Cavanagh, the Associate Director of Assumption College’s D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence, stuck to her core ideas: cultivating engagement isn’t a frivolous activity—it’s hard work for students and offers professors the opportunity to help students succeed.

In her latest book, HIVEMIND: The New Science of Tribalism in Our Divided World, Cavanagh examines how social technology is remaking the way individuals socialize.

I think my love of education, and love of learning and the classroom, stems from observing my mother. She was an elementary school teacher. I used to help her grade papers at a very early age. I think it became easy to see myself at the front of a classroom because I had that concrete model right in front of me my whole life.

Even as a young person, I was always drawn to psychology. Watching TV and movies, I loved those therapist’s office scenes where people were grappling with mental illness, often in kind of sensationalistic ways—but I was very intrigued.

I went into my undergrad at Boston University with an interest in psychology, but I also loved the written word. In addition to psych, I pursued a bit of a hodgepodge collection of courses in English literature, German, and women’s studies. Originally, I thought that my path was to become a therapist, a clinical psychologist. But as I pursued my psychology major, I found myself more and more drawn to the research world and to questions about the mind that could be answered better with larger designs, larger bodies of people.

Sarah Rose-Cavanagh Boston University Graduation

Sarah Rose Cavanagh in 1999 at her graduation from Boston University

I had lovely professors. I had a wonderful mentor for my senior honors thesis, Kathy Malley-Morrison, who helped me combine some of my women’s studies interests and my interest in psychology and allowed me to design a research project that would complement both of those pursuits.

I think that all of these strands of study—combining my research in psychology with a broad humanities background in literature and language and women’s studies—set me up for my future career in which I would combine psychology and writing.

For the love of teaching

I recall a developmental psychology course that I took with Catherine Caldwell-Harris—she promoted a portfolio approach to the whole semester, so there were no set assignments. There were no exams, no quizzes, no response papers. Instead, we had to complete three projects. And those three projects were entirely of our own design.

It was intimidating, because there was so much choice left up to us. It influenced how I thought about teaching when I would go on to teach myself. It was a strong educational experience.

I finished my senior honors thesis at Boston University in 1999. When I first started applying to graduate school, I didn’t get into a single school. I always love to tell my students that because I think it’s helpful to know that you’re not always going to go down a straight path, but you might still end up fulfilling your dreams. At the time I was rather devastated. But I regrouped and worked for two years at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in a research coordinator position.

When I started applying again, I realized that a research and teaching career would be a better path for me than a clinical one. And so in 2001, I entered into Tufts University’s experimental psychology program.

My dissertation was on attention and emotion in healthy adults. I think all of my wonderful experiences as an undergraduate shaped my desire to teach—and teaching was one of the most salient parts of my graduate experience, actually. I taught an unusual amount during my time at Tufts. I loved teaching so much that I sought out every possible teaching experience.

Once I earned my master’s, I started volunteering to teach statistics in the summer and a little bit of intro psych and some courses on film and mental illness with a friend through Tufts’ experimental college program. I think I taught nine full classes before I graduated. That’s not the typical experience of graduate students in the program. Really, you’re supposed to focus much more on your research and not be spending all of this time teaching, but I just loved it so much I couldn’t help myself.

Sarah Rose Cavanagh Tufts Graduation

Sarah Rose Cavanagh in 2007 at her PhD hooding ceremony from Tufts with her daughter Noelle

‘There’s nothing wrong with fun’

In 2007, I received my PhD in experimental psychology from Tufts. Following my doctorate, I spent two years as a postdoc in Heather Urry’s Emotion, Brain, and Behavior laboratory, before taking a job as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. That’s where I met James Lang, an English professor and author of many books on the scholarship of teaching and learning, who was starting a research-based higher education book series. The books were to be grounded in cognitive science, but also very readable with attention to the quality of the prose and being engaging for the reader.

He had been reading a blog that I wrote (and continue to write) for Psychology Today and he approached me about writing a book for his series. Originally, his idea was that I would write it about community service learning because he knew I had implemented that technique in some of my classes. But I said “Well, could I write about emotions instead? Because my research area is in affective science. Maybe I could I write about the application of affective science to the higher ed classroom?”

He said sure and I ended up writing The Spark of Learning: Energizing Education with the Science of Emotion. The basic thesis of the book relies on research indicating that we have emotions—evolutionarily speaking—because they drive us toward information and situations that are beneficial and drive us away from information and situations that are dangerous.

When we’re designing our syllabi and our assignments and thinking about our teaching style, we can think about ways of engaging student emotions: demonstrating to students that the material is relevant to their values; helping them make connections; demonstrating our own passion for the subject. Those are all strategies where we can think about the emotions of our students in order to help them better learn.

That thesis was generally well received, but sometimes people read “engagement” and think “entertainment.” They believe that when I talk about making the material self-relevant or beginning each section of the material with an emotional hook to draw students in, that I’m advocating for making every moment of the class fun or easy. They think that that translates into frivolousness.

But that’s not really what I’m saying. I think that deep engagement is really hard work for students. If they become engaged that means they’re applying effort, it means they’re exposing themselves to possible failure, it means they’re taking risks. One of the best ways to engage students is to challenge them. To really push them to the outskirts of their ability and even a bit beyond. For all of those reasons, engagement is hard work for students. I view it as offering them an open hand to succeed.

I also think that there’s nothing wrong with fun.

Theories, tested

There are also some people who think I don’t go far enough in the book, that there shouldn’t be so much thought put into design, that the classroom should be more organic. I also get some pushback against the idea that research is validation. Some people are wary of the extent to which we can accurately operationalize student learning in ways that are meaningfully measurable.

I appreciate the validity of these critiques of the empirical literature. But I also think that there is value in trying to run controlled tests of various theories, of exploring different dependent variables and the types of techniques different teachers use in order to try to maximize their students’ learning.

For instance, one of the techniques with the most extensive research support that I explore in the book is the use of immediacy cues. Immediacy cues are simple, mostly nonverbal, indications that you the instructor are present in the moment and engaged. Simple things like eye contact, gestures, varied vocal tone. The use of immediacy cues has been found to benefit all sorts of dependent variables, from student evaluations, to student learning, to the professor’s evaluations of how the course went, to class GPA. Those simple signs that you’re present with the students, that you’re engaged yourself, that you are spending time with them, that you’re not off thinking about your grocery list, seem to benefit all sorts of different aspects of the classroom.

One big change I’m seeing is that the thinking about active learning, and the thinking about student engagement that started first in secondary and in elementary ed, is now spreading to higher ed. Our students are arriving in our classrooms used to those techniques, used to being in classrooms where the teachers were caring a lot about engagement and active learning. And they’re going to have certain expectations of what learning looks like in a college classroom.

Currently, I serve as Associate Director for Grants and Research in the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption. We work with teaching fellows who are student teachers and they tell us just that: In their classrooms with younger students, they’re doing quizzing, they’re doing minute papers, they’re doing jigsaw techniques, and the students are also accustomed to technology being used in the classroom to facilitate all of these efforts. By the time they land in college classrooms, that’s going to be their model of what the classroom’s like, which I don’t think was always the case. But it’s something that we—as college educators—should be thinking creatively about.

Broadening curriculums

Beyond that, it’s important that we move towards thinking about the student as a whole person. We need to fight back against this idea of higher education just being about work skills. I think that this idea that we know what jobs they’re going to have, that we know the skills that they’re going to need in the workplace, is not really realistic in our constantly changing world. Really, the skills they’re going to need to go into the workplace are to be creative, to think on their feet, to develop, to see where new learning needs to take place and then develop that learning. And these are all skills that a broad based education with a hefty dose of humanities is going to prepare them best for.

Higher education curriculums should not be narrower and narrower. I think they should be broader and broader. Within that broad curriculum you could try to not just stay in the classroom—circling back to community service learning, your students can try to help the communities that they’re embedded in solve real-life problems.

If we can do those things, I think all of that leads, hopefully, to a better world. Students who are better prepared for a constantly changing workforce but who can also respond to the needs of their community and feel valued.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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