Getting Emotional with Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh

Written by
Karen Costa

Aug 31, 2017

Aug 31, 2017 • by Karen Costa

“I'm an emotional researcher and a very emotional person. I make a lot of my decisions with my gut. It just felt right there,” says Sarah Rose Cavanagh, as she recalls choosing Boston University MA for her undergraduate studies. After starting out as a marine biology major, she soon switched to psychology, a decision that led to studying other people's emotions, especially how emotions affect (for better or worse) students' learning experiences.

Making Her Own Path

“I knew my first year of college that I wanted to become a professor,” she says. That decision was supported over the course of her undergraduate and graduate studies by a group of women mentors who provided Cavanagh with what she calls, “rich and rewarding relationships that gave me models for who I wanted to be.” Today, she cites the opportunity to mentor students in her role as a professor at Assumption College in Worcester, MA as one of her favorite parts of her job: “Those one-on-one relationships are such a huge part of the college experience.”

In addition to her professorial role, Cavanagh carved a unique path as a Ph.D. She's the associate director of Assumption's Center for Teaching and Learning, where she encourages and advises her fellow professors to perform action research in their classrooms. Cavanagh is also a prolific writer, recently publishing a book, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. A second book is in the works.

Centering Emotions in the Classroom

Emotions are at the heart of Cavanagh's own research. She's currently working on a project to assess the impact of mindfulness education and emotional regulation on college student success. Students in selected classes are given iPads loaded with mini-lessons on the emotional challenges of the college experience, along with suggested strategies to navigate those challenges. The research will show if students who are able to better regulate their emotions have increased performance on subsequent academic activities like quizzes. “This study is a place where all of my work, my book, the teaching excellence center and my research all come together,” she says.

Cavanagh believes it's important to help normalize emotions in the classroom. The app used in her research study explains to students that college is a stressful experience. “We teach them that it's natural to get bored, anxious, and frustrated in class,” she says. “That frustration is part of learning.” In addition to the mindfulness activities, students in the study are taught cognitive reappraisal strategies to help them reframe their emotions. “Students sometimes think that frustration is failure or that if they're confused that it means they aren't smart. We help them see that it's normal and OK to have those feelings in the hopes that they'll then invest even more in their learning,”

She acknowledges that there are some misconceptions about her work. Common concerns from educators she's worked with include the idea that she's advocating for faculty to become entertainers or that they'll be expected to do a lot of hand-holding. Not so, she says. “Students aren't going to learn if they don't care,” she says. Putting thought into how to best motivate students and empowering students by giving them choices in their assignments, such as letting them choose a journal topic, are two ways that faculty can maximize student learning. “Part of our role is showing students the value of the material, explaining why it's interesting, and getting them excited about the material so that they can do the work,” she says. “That's good teaching.”

Cavanagh's work on the importance of emotions in the college classroom easily translates to leadership and management skills for administrators. Her current book project will focus, in part, on some of these concepts. She says that charisma and inspiration are critically important to effective leadership. She's even come across research that's found that the more a team laughs together, the more effective their work is.

Making Time

When prompted to share advice for WIHE readers who might be interested in writing for publication, Cavanagh doesn't hesitate. “Twitter,” she says, explaining that many of her writing opportunities developed because she's active and present on social media in a professional capacity. In addition, she notes that she wrote her book while part of a writing group. “It's the power of deadlines and social motivation,” she says. “Knowing that I was committed to someone else helped motivate me to get the writing done.”

Despite her busy schedule, Cavanagh values and makes time for family. This summer meant plenty of time at the ocean. Reading novels and running are also at the top of her leisure list. “I'm leaving soon for a retreat with a group of women. We try to get away for a few days, twice a year. We do goal-setting and just play. We've been doing it since my early twenties,” she explains.

While she's planning to enjoy her summer break, Cavanagh looks forward to the start of the fall term. True to form, her voice rises and falls with the emotions of passion and gratitude when discussing what she loves most about working on a college campus. “I love the rhythm of the seasons of academia,” she says. “I love the beginning of fall, when everything is fresh and new, and then wrapping everything up with a bow at the end of the semester. The idea that everyone on campus is there to make the world a better place is very rewarding.”