‘What’s wrong with being ‘high’?’

‘I think I’m in love’:  You cross your bridges when you come to them. That makes sense. But now imagine that having crossed one of these bridges, you are accosted by a pretty girl who would like to ask you some questions for a research project. Assuming for a moment that you are of the male persuasion and you happen to like girls, this sounds like a good thing. It gets even better, when at the end of the questionnaire she gives you her telephone number (!) and tells you that if you would like to learn more about the study you can call her any time (jackpot!). Well, do you call her? And does it matter what kind of a bridge you have just crossed? Just watch the video…

A spillover effect:  The Capillano shaky bridge experiment (Dutton & Aron 1974) is one of the most famous in Social Psychology. The idea is this: the physiological effects of a number of emotions are actually very similar – they trigger a heightened state of arousal. Our bodies get ready for action, but what kind of action? Fighting? Fleeing? Flirting? We assume that we know, because we assume it was this knowledge that led to the arousal in the first place (‘Ooops! A lion! I’d better start feeling afraid!’). Yet Psychologists argue that emotions are generated in the part of the brain which is beyond our consciousness (the ‘Adaptive Unconscious’ – Wilson 2002, ch. 2). So what happens instead is that we feel this arousal and (not being aware of what has caused it) we look around trying to detect the source (‘I feel aroused – Why? Ooops! A lion – it must be that I am afraid!’). Now you might say this has little to do with teaching, but what about the following studies?

Jogging and sharing: Subjects were invited in the lab to take part in a couple of studies. Half of them were asked to sit down and relax; the other half however were instructed to jog on the spot for 60 seconds. They were somewhat taken aback of course, but they complied. All subjects were then asked to take part in a seemingly unrelated study. Researchers told them they were interested to see what kind of things people shared. So they were each given a recent article to read and told that if they found it interesting, they could e-mail it to a friend. The results were stunning: a staggering 75% of the people who had jogged chose to share the article – twice as many as the ones who had not! (Berger 2013 – p. 121) We can see the same spillover effect in action; people attributed their arousal to the article. ‘I feel excited, ergo this article must be interesting’. And if you care, you share.

Arousal 4

Consensus vs conflict: In a fascinating study, researchers asked the teachers of some fifth and sixth graders to get them to interact on a topic. In one case the task design guided students to achieve consensus, while in another it was such that it encouraged disagreement. The results were revealing: in the former case students were far less interested – the studied less, participated less and were less likely to seek additional information. Not so in the latter case though! The most startling difference was observed when the teachers showed a film related to the topic – during recess. Under normal conditions, students have very clear priorities: recess comes first! Surprisingly, about 18% of the consensus group chose to miss their break to watch the film, but the figure for the other group rose to an astonishing 45! (Lowry & Johnson 1981).

Applications in the field of ELT:  In view of all the above, I think it makes great sense to use high arousal activities in our lessons. Not only are they enjoyable in their own right, our students may well find the content more interesting and our lessons more exciting. In addition, such activities actually do lead to better learning. Williams & Burden (1997 – p. 127) list a number of features of such tasks (concentration – purposefulness – immediate feedback – a loss of sense of time etc.) which signal a state of ‘flow’, which has been shown to be highly conducive to learning.

So – how can we do that? There are three factors which usually lead to high arousal in the classroom: physical movement, competition and time pressure.  Here are some excellent activities which exploit these elements (the ones employing technology are marked with a T).

Debates: As the last study suggests, debates are excellent for getting people involved – far more so than consensus activities. The reason is partly that once we have expressed a view in public our ego is at stake and we hate it if someone tries to shoot down our arguments (see Tavris & Aronson 2008). The funny thing is that this happens even if people choose sides at random and it is clear they do not necessarily subscribe to the views they defend! Penny Ur (1991 – pp. 105-108) gives a number of ideas for the classroom. If students cannot come up with arguments, they can go to ‘idebate’ for help [click here]. For younger students, Daley & Dahlie 2002 is a good resource.

Quizlet – Space Race [T]: Quizlet is a fantastic tool! Based on the traditional idea of flashcards (e.g. with a word on one side and a translation / synonym / definition on the other) it has taken the idea a lot further. Once you have generated your card set, there is an activity called ‘Space Race’ where the words fly across the screen one at a time; the student’s task is to type up what is on the other side of the card (e.g. the definition or synonym etc.) This simple game is truly addictive! [For a simple tutorial on how to use Quizlet just click here].

Speed-reading – Cueprompter [T]: Cueprompter is one of my favourite sites for improving reading speed. It is extremely simple to use. You select your text. You do your pre-R activities. You give the students the Qs they will have to answer.  Then you paste the text into the box provided on the site and you click on ‘Play’. Students start reading, but as they read, the top lines start disappearing, so they have to read faster! As you can adjust the speed, this is simply perfect for reading comprehension – and it is extremely arousing, believe you me! [For a simple tutorial on how to use Cueprompter just click here].

Wall Dictation: Students (and not only young learners) love this one! You choose your dictation text (you can actually use different ones, with the same number of words). You divide your class into pairs.  One of the students (the ‘Writer’) does the writing, the other (the ‘Runner’) has to tell him/her what to write. You paste copies of the text(s) on the front wall of the classroom. On your signal, the Runners run to the front of the class and try to memorise as much of the text as they can; then they run back and dictate it to their partner. Then they run to the front for more. The pair to finish first wins. Excellent!

Screaming Definitions: Another hugely popular vocabulary revision activity. You divide up the class into two teams – one on the left and one on the right. One student from each team comes to the front of the classroom and turns around to face their teammates. The teacher writes a word on the board. The members of each team have to call out definitions, synonyms, or they use examples to help their teammate guess the word. The first one to do so wins a point for their group. With lots of people shouting simultaneously, arousal levels soar! 🙂

One Question Behind: This is a brilliant activity for practicing Q-forms. Students work in pairs; they bombard each other with questions, for a certain amount of time – say 1 minute. The student who gives the replies answers not the question s/he is being asked, but the one before it! (E.g. Q1: ‘What’s your name?’ A1: xxx / Q2: ‘Where do you live?’ A2: ‘John Smith’ / Q3: ‘What is your phone number?’ A3: ‘Athens, Greece’ etc.) The person who answers the most Qs ‘correctly’ is the winner. Answering the previous Q while trying to remember the last one is quite challenging and lots of fun!

Final words: Arousal is a very important ingredient in effective lessons and one which I feel has been underused, partly because of fear that it might lead to rowdiness and partly through a conviction that a slower, more reflective mode leads to deeper learning (e.g. ‘Suggestopedia’ – Richards 2001, Ch. 8). In my experience however, high arousal activities can be both effective and enjoyable. Just keep in mind that shaky bridge and make sure your students do not fall in love with you. 🙂 But chances are they will be too focused on the activities. Take that last one for instance. I am sure the most perceptive among you have noticed that it bears some resemblance to a classic sketch by the Two Ronnies. Indeed it does. Here it is.  🙂


Dutton, D. G. and Aron, A. P. (1974). “Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, pp. 510–517.

Berger, J. “Contagious” Simon & Schuster 2013.

Daley, P. & Dahlie, M. “For & Against!” Scholastic 2002.

Lowry, N. & Johnson, D. (1981) “Effects of Controversy on Epistemic Curiosity, Achievement and Attitudes” The Journal of Social Psychology – Volume 115, Issue 1 (pp 31-43).

Richards, J. “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching” Cambridge University Press 2001.

Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. “Mistakes were Made (But not by Me)” Pinter and Martin 2008.

Ur, P. “Discussions that Work” Cambridge University Press 1991.

Williams, M. & Burden, R. “Psychology for Language Teachers” Cambridge University Press 1997.

Wilson, T. “Strangers to Ourselves” Belknap Harvard 2002