Do we know what they are thinking? Theory of Mind and affect in the classroom

  • Aimee Knupsky Allegheny College
  • M. Soledad Caballero Allegheny College
Keywords: Theory of Mind, Affect, Rapport, Classroom Contribution, classroom dynamics


Research on Theory of Mind explores how we develop the capacity to understand that others have thoughts and feelings that differ from our own and how we are compelled to “read” them. However, a preponderance of evidence from the cognitive humanities and cognitive neurosciences tells us that our readings are often misguided or just plain wrong. None of this work has considered how teachers and learners might engage in open conversations about theory to mind to identify misperceptions and enhance their understanding of one another’s thoughts and reactions in the classroom. In this essay, we explore how using what we call “Theory of Minding” as a rhetorical device may invite moments of vulnerability and of clarification when we engage in learning with our students, thus enhancing classroom dynamics. We describe how the idea of Theory of Minding developed, present an initial evaluation of it by students, and situate this technique in the rich literature about affect and pedagogy. We propose that using Theory of Minding in the classroom can be used to encourage more authentic and interactive engagement.

Author Biographies

Aimee Knupsky, Allegheny College

Aimee Knupsky is Associate Professor of Psychology at Allegheny College (USA). She is a cognitive psychologist and does research in the cognitive humanities.

M. Soledad Caballero, Allegheny College

M. Soledad Caballero is Professor of English at Allegheny College (USA). She is a British Romanticist and poet and does research in the cognitive humanities.


Alexander, K. B.C. (2011/2012). Teaching discomfort? Uncomfortable attachments, ambivalent identifications. Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy, 22(2), 57-71.

Apperly, I. A. (2012). What is “Theory of Mind?” Concepts, cognitive processes and individual differences. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(5), 825-839.

Apperly, I. A., Carroll, D. J., Samson, D., Humphreys, G. W., Qureshi, A., & Moffitt, G. (2010). Why are there limits on Theory of Mind use? Evidence from adults’ ability to follow instructions from an ignorant speaker. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63(6), 1201-1217.

Amodio D. M., & Frith, C.D. (2006). Meeting of minds: The medial frontal cortex and social cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7, 268-277.

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “Theory of Mind”? Cognition, 21(1), 37-46.

Barrett, L. F. (2011). Was Darwin wrong about emotional expressions? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(6), 400-406.

Barrett, L. F., Mesquita, B., & Gendron, M. (2011). Context in emotion perception. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5), 286-290.

Boler, M. (1999). Feeling power: Emotions and education. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.

Butler, E. A. (2015). Interpersonal affect dynamics: It takes two (and time) to tango. Emotion Review, 7(4), 336-341.

Carlson, E. N., & Barranti, M. (2017). Metaperceptions: Do people know how others perceive them? In J. A. Hall, M. S. Mast, and T. V. West (Eds.), The social psychology of perceiving others accurately (pp. 165-182). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Case, K. A. (Ed.). (2016). Intersectional pedagogy: Complicating identity and social justice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Chinn, S. E. (2011/2012). Once more with feeling: Pedagogy, affect, transformation. Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy, 22(2), 15-20.

Ciaramelli, E., Bernardi, F., & Moscovitch, M. (2013). Individualized Theory of Mind (iToM): When memory modulates empathy. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, Article 4.

Coan, J. A. (2011). The social regulation of emotion. In J. Decety & J. T. Cacioppo (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of social neuroscience (pp. 611-623). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coffey, A., & Delamont, S. (2000). Feminism and the classroom teacher: Research, praxis, pedagogy. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Fink, E., Begeer, S., Peterson, C. C., Slaughter, V., & de Rosnay, M. (2015). Friendlessness and Theory of Mind: A prospective longitudinal study. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 33(1), 1-17.

Fridlund, A. J., & Russell, J. A. (2006). The functions of facial expressions: What’s in a face? In V. Manusov and M. L. Patterson (Eds.), The Sage handbook of nonverbal communication (pp. 299-319). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Frisby, B. N. & Martin, M. M. (2010). Instructor–student and student–student rapport in the classroom. Communication Education, 59(2), 146-164.

Gallop, J. (1995). Pedagogy: The question of impersonation. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Gehlbach, H., Brinkworth, M. E., & Wang, M. T. (2012). The social perspective taking process: Strategies and sources of evidence in taking another’s perspective. Teachers College Record, 114(1), 226-254.

Goodman, S. B., Murphy, K. B., & D’Andrea, M. L. (2014). Discussion dilemmas: An analysis of beliefs and ideals in the undergraduate seminar. International Journal of Qualitative Study in Education, 27(1), 1-22.

Hagenauer, G., & Volet, S. E. (2014). Teacher–student relationship at university: An important yet under-researched field. Oxford Review of Education, 40(3), 370-388.

Hargreaves, A. (2001). Emotional geographies of teaching. Teachers College Record, 103(6), 1056-1080.

Hesford, W. S. (1999). Framing identities: Autobiography and the politics of pedagogy. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hess, U., & Hareli, S. (2015). The role of social context for the interpretation of emotional facial expressions. In M. K. Mandal and A. Awasthi (Eds.), Understanding facial expressions in communication: Cross-cultural and multidisciplinary perspectives (pp. 19-141). New York, NY: Springer.

Hickey-Moody, A. (2013). Affect as method: Feelings, aesthetics and affective pedagogy. In R. Coleman and J. Ringrose (Eds.), Deleuze and research methodologies (pp. 79-95). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Hickey-Moody, A., & Page, T. (Eds.). (2016). Arts, pedagogy and cultural resistance: New materialisms. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield International.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Howard, J. R. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom: Getting your students engaged and participating in person and online. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ickes, W. (2017). Empathic accuracy: Judging thoughts and feelings. In J. A. Hall, M. S. Mast, and T. V. West (Eds.), The social psychology of perceiving others accurately (pp. 52-70). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, M. R., Dugan, J. P., & Soria, K. M. (2017). Try to see it my way: What influences social perspective taking among college students. Journal of College Student Development, 58(7), 1035-1054.

Light, T. P., Nicholas, J., & Bondy, R. (Eds.). (2015). Feminist pedagogy in higher education: Critical theory and practice. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Miller, S. A. (2012). Theory of Mind: Beyond the preschool years. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Reysen. S., Hall, T., & Puryear, C. (2014). Friends’ accuracy and bias in rating group identification. Current Psychology, 33(4), 644-654.

Roberts, K. A. (2002). Ironies of effective teaching: Deep-structure learning and the constructions of the classroom. Teaching Sociology, 30(1), 1-25.

Spreng, R. N., & Mar, R. A. (2012). I remember you: A role for memory in social cognition and the functional neuroanatomy of their interaction. Brain Research, 1428(5), 43-50.

Thompson, B. (2017). Teaching with tenderness: Toward an embodied practice. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Zorn, D. & Boler, M. (2007). Rethinking emotions and educational leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 10(2), 137–151.

Zunshine, L. (2010). Lying bodies of the Enlightenment: Theory of Mind and cultural historicism. In L. Zunshine (Ed.), Introduction to cognitive cultural studies (pp. 115-133) Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

How to Cite
KnupskyA., & CaballeroM. S. (2020). Do we know what they are thinking? Theory of Mind and affect in the classroom. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 8(1), 108-121.