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Using Neuroscience and Positive Psychology to Enhance College Teaching and Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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L.A.C.E. (Love, Authenticity, Courage and Empathy)  is an incredibly effective tool for sparking cognition, which is important when students are encountering new information.


The posting below introduces an interesting approach to help faculty and students deal with anxiety during these challenging times. It is by Yvette M. Alex-Assenosh* and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 30, Number 2, February 2021. It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at: /(ISSN)2166-3327 The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. ©2021 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published by Wiley Subscription Services Inc., a Wiley Company, 111 River St., Hoboken, NJ 07030-5774 Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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 Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning------------ 933 words ----------


Using Neuroscience and Positive Psychology to Enhance College Teaching and Learning


Anxiety is a silent obstacle limiting many college students' ability to thrive. Nearly three out of four college students experience overwhelming anxiety. In wake of the COVID‐19 pandemic, a recent study found that 80 percent of United States' students reported negative mental health effects. As educators, we cannot simply sit back, watch our students suffer and hope things will eventually get better. We must be proactive.

L.A.C.E.—love, authenticity, courage and empathy—is a comprehensive approach that can address a wide variety of threats, fears and anxieties that students face. At the center of this approach, which I developed to improve the overall climate on my campus, is an understanding that universities are not ends to themselves but mechanisms to educate and create better societies. L.A.C.E. empowers college teachers and students to co‐create successful learning environments and a sense of belonging for everyone.

Scientific Foundations of L.A.C.E.

L.A.C.E. is strongly based in scientific research. Social neuroscience research shows that when students feel threatened or fearful, their brains focus on that fear rather than on learning (Steimer, 2002; Steele, 2010). In fact, students' fears about stereotyping, anxiety, their relative status, sense of belonging, autonomy and fairness (Rock, 2008) reach the amygdala hundreds of milliseconds before other parts of the brain can process them. This puts the brain in survival mode (Arnsten, 1998).

Further research demonstrates the beneficial impact of positive emotions on the human brain (Davidson, 1992; Urry et al, 2004; Machado & Cantilino, 2017), including increased dopamine levels and positive changes in cognition, especially when people are in positive moods (Ashby, Isen & Turken, 1999). Specifically, positive emotions loosen the hold of negative ones, while building resilience (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998).

Social neuroscience also helps us better understand the correlation between faculty mindsets and racial achievement gaps in science courses. This scholarship (Canning, Muenks, Green & Murphy, 2019) incorporates building a sense of belonging into the learning process (Binning, 2019) to undo emotional and disciplinary obstacles (Middendorf & Shopkow, 2018). Furthermore, it sets the stage for deeper exploration into how to better leverage the neural processes in ways that create more expansive, connected and transformational learning experiences. This is where L.A.C.E. comes in.

In L.A.C.E., love is wholehearted and selfless concern about the welfare of others. Authenticity is self‐awareness and aligning personal values with behavior. Courage is being who we are afraid to be and doing what we are afraid to do. Empathy is recognizing that someone else's emotions and experiences have value too. More specifically, it's the ability to be present with and hold space for the emotions and experiences of others, even when we don't understand or agree with them.

These concepts provide the foundation for college teachers to reflect on and apply the approach to themselves before modeling it for students. From there, they can use L.A.C.E. in the classroom, resulting in more holistic course descriptions, syllabi, assessments, reading materials, buddy systems, group projects, class codes and other resources

In Classroom Teaching and Learning

L.A.C.E. situates the course description and syllabus as early opportunities for college teachers to express love for the subject as well as their students. This helps to strike the right tone and models L.A.C.E. over the term and beyond. For example, in a homework assignment during the first week of class, students were asked to describe how college teachers can demonstrate love in the classroom. A biology major offered that college teachers express love for their students when they are “welcoming and excited for what each individual student brings to the group. It could take the form of encouragement and a positive attitude, or honesty and constructive criticism” (Barton, 2020). Ultimately, this assures students that faculty and peers are holding space to support intellectual and personal growth.

L.A.C.E. also encourages faculty to develop authentic evaluation, which brings the “messy, complicated situations to the surface, and ask[s] students to apply what they have learned [to address] them” (Wiggins, 1998). It compels students to consider how their learning resonates with the world around them, including civic and social life.

A Tool for Constructive Learning

L.A.C.E. is an incredibly effective tool for sparking cognition, which is important when students are encountering new information. Every faculty member and student has either given or received love, authenticity, courage and empathy in their lives. That is why L.A.C.E. invites students to practice this approach as individuals, so that they can build mental muscle and apply the principles to themselves and others.

For example, my co‐instructor and I asked students to explore the concept of African political leadership through the lens of empathy. Students were asked to think and write about what it will take for them to expand the borders of their personal “circles of concern.”

A junior studying media offered the following reflection: “On a broader scale, I have noticed that for some complicated political issues, even if they involve life or death situations, I avoid learning about them despite knowing there are thousands of victims worthy of empathy…I'd like to change the mindset of avoiding what I don't understand…I'm going to stop being scared off by complicated politics…” (Novella, 2020).

L.A.C.E. positions college teachers and students to co‐create an environment for discovery, curiosity and awareness. According to one student, “I believe the components of L.A.C.E. have specifically helped with community building, class discussions toward growth and community and new connections within the actual class material” (Burian, 2020).

As educators, we must prioritize individual and community wellbeing. In a world where reaching out across social boundaries is increasingly rare, L.A.C.E. provides the opportunity for the connection and deliberative democracy we desperately need.

*Dr. Yvette Alex‐Assensoh is a recovering perfectionist. She is Professor of Political Science and VP for Equity and Inclusion at the University of Oregon.




·       Arnsten, A. F. T. (1998).  The biology of being frazzled. Science,  280,  1711– 1712.

·       Ashby, F. G., Isen, A. M., & Turken, A. U. (1999).  A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review,  106,  529– 550.

·       Barton, J. (2020).  Homework assignment on the meaning of love in the L.A.C.E. framework. Submitted online via Canvas.

·       Binning, K. (2019).  Fostering a sense of belonging in the college classroom: Peer interactions that improve student success.  Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses (SEISMIC) event, Indiana University,  Bloomington, IN.

·       Burian, L. (2020).  L.A.C.E. as a team concept. Submitted online via Canvas.

·       Canning, E. A., Muenks, K., Green, D. J., & Murphy, M. (2019).  STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science Advances, eaau4734.

·       Davidson, R. J. (1992).  Emotion and affective style: Hemispheric substrates. Psychological Science,  3, 39– 43.

·       Fredrickson, B. L., & Levenson, R. W. (1998).  Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition and Emotion,  12:2,  191– 220.

·       Machado, L., & Cantilino, A. (2017).  A systematic review of the neural correlates of positive emotions. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria,  39(2),  172– 179.

·       Middendorf, J., & Shopkow, L. (2018).  Overcoming student learning bottlenecks: Decode the critical thinking in your discipline.  New York: Stylus.

·       Novella, L. (2020).  Homework assignment on practicing empathy in the L.A.C.E. framework. Submitted online via Canvas.

·       Palmer, S. (2020).  Homework assignment on the role of authenticity in the learning process. Submitted online via Canvas.

·       Rock, D. (2008).  Scarf: A brain‐based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadership Journal,  1,  1– 9.

·       Steele, C. M. (2010).  Whistling Vivaldi.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

·       Steimer, T. (2002).  The biology of fear‐ and anxiety‐related behaviors. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience,  4(3),  231– 249.

·       Urry, H. L., Nitschke, J. B., Dolski, I., Jackson, D. C., Dalton, K. M., Mueller, C. J., et al. (2004).  Making a life worth living: Neural correlates of well‐being. Psychological Science,  15(6),  367– 372.

·       Wiggins, G. (1998).  Ensuring authentic performance. In  Educative assessment: Designing assessments to inform and improve student performance (pp.  21– 42).  San Francisco: Jossey‐Bass.