Improve Learning by Appealing to the Sense of Smell

By James Rossi, Classroom Coordinator

Today’s post is part of a series on using the five senses to create an optimal learning environment. You can find the first post in that series here.

Environment influences outcomes. 

We discussed this in an earlier post, but it bears repeating. When we influence our students’ environment, we can influence their learning experience. One way we can do this is by utilizing their sense of smell.

Scent is a physical sense. In order for you to smell something, molecules of that substance have to travel through the air and physically dock to receptors in your nose. Before the ability to artificially produce smells, most aromas were only present in specific contexts. Those contexts were tied to the aromas in memory and became a useful tool for knowing and gaining experience.

If those aromas were continually linked to something good for survival then they have positive physiological associations for us and likely have a calming or leveling effect overall. For example, the smell of an environment during and after rain signals growth to come, brings water. Most predators are not out in the rain, so this signals safety when the smell is around.

What Does This Have to Do with Learning?

When aromas were present at times that were harmful to our survival, they become linked to a negative physiological response. We do not enjoy the aroma and may even be disgusted by it – we experience some kind of negative physiological outcome.

An example of this is rotten food. Anyone who enjoyed the smell and consumed those foods would likely experience illness that may result in death. Those that were disgusted are the ones that remain because they avoid things with that smell and survive, having more offspring and passing along that trait.

Think back in your own life to times when you’ve come across a smell that instantly teleported you to another moment in time. Because the link is physical, an actual connection to a substance, it is very powerful. Consider the advantage this mechanism has to human survival.

Now consider the advantage to the classroom.

According to a 2012 study, odors can evoke autobiographical memories, as they have the potential to activate certain parts of the brain. It sounds like that could be pretty useful when it comes to learning.

So how can teachers use scents to create a better learning environment?

Try Essential Oils

Today, there is a wide variety of research and suggestions on the use of essential oils – named so for the fact that they are the essence of the plant they come from, not because they are necessary for any particular thing. These oils contain physical compounds that, when exposed to the receptors in our own bodies, have some kind of impact beyond simply registering the aroma. That aroma brings with it a measured and anticipated response.

Many different oils and blends can be used and do have legitimate effects. However, even if you are a naysayer and are fully against essential oils for being fake medicine or whatever other bad rep they have these days – stop for a second – have you ever used air fresheners? Scented candles? Incense? Cologne or Perfume? Then you do believe it because it’s all to a specific end. While the natural oils are best, in all cases we aim to engage the scent receptors for benefits. Even if the oils don’t actually do the things they say, they are enough to alter an environment in a positive way and do still have an effect.

Give Your Students Their Own Personal Blend

In addition to running a diffuser most days, I keep paper towels handy for giving individual students oils.

When I have a student struggling to keep their eyes open, they get a few drops of lemon, orange, eucalyptus, or peppermint oil in a folded paper towel. I tell them to watch the clock and breath with it under their nose for two minutes. They always perk up. 

When they’re unfocused or clearly stressing, they get lavender, frankincense, or rosemary. If they’re stuffy or looking like they might get ill, I blend up eucalyptus, tea tree and peppermint for them.

How do you incorporate the sense of smell into your classroom? Let us know in the comments!

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