Emotion in Learning – Fad or Fab?

This week’s chat is by Fiona Quigley, head of Learning Design and Innovation for Logicearth, a learning services company based in Ireland.


I’ve just read two books that have changed how I think about the role of emotion in learning. The first is – Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahenman. The second is, The Chimp Paradox, by Dr Steve Peters, who was the psychological mastermind behind the success of the British Olympic Cycling team.

Both books recognise that the brain is made up of different systems and that when we take decisions or make judgements, we are not nearly as rational as we think. Human thinking is full of biases and contradictions, which is useful to realise – particularly when we want to change an aspect of behaviour.

Man does not live on facts alone

So, let’s take an example. Have you ever broken the speed limit while you are driving? Was this because you didn’t have the knowledge or experience to understand the speed limits? Chances are you did know the speed limit, but other motivations were stronger; you were going to be late perhaps, so your rational mind was somewhat hijacked. Or simply, you were distracted by other pressing thoughts, so you didn’t notice the signs.

The point is that there is a lot more going on in our heads than just dealing with facts. And if this is the case, then we need to better acknowledge this when we are designing learning content. Yes – it is important to understand facts and information, but your learner is likely to feel a certain way about that information. It is useful to understand the facts and the feelings involved in the content.

Emotion as a memory aid

We remember experiences that impact us emotionally. Emotionally evocative events somehow get ‘saved’ more quickly and deeply than other less remarkable events. I’m sure we all remember the ‘firsts’ in our lives – first day at school, first best friend, the first boyfriend/girlfriend. The emotional tags generated by those experiences, which are often feelings like worry, anxiety, excitement, joy – somehow anchor that experience in your memory so that it stays with you.

From my childhood, I remember an experience of trying to smoke at the silly age of 9 (because everyone else was doing it!). I always recalled that experience when I was ever tempted to take up the habit.

The emotional power of words

The actual words we use when designing learning content don’t seem to get as much focus as the other elements – use of visuals, animations, scenarios etc. If you read learning content written by a good writer, it adds a deeper layer to the overall learning experience. Even being aware of the power of some words helps, for example:

  • Using the word ‘but’ in a sentence, deletes what comes before it and causes the reader to focus on the second part of the sentence – “I think he is a good worker, but…”
  • Be positive, rather than negative – e.g. say economical rather than inexpensive

 You can find some more useful tips here.

The marketers do it well, again

This is not the first time I’ve said we should look to the marketers and advertisers to see good examples. Marketing is chiefly about persuading people to buy your product or service. Learning should be about persuasion too – helping someone change their behaviour or attitude, which in turn improves their performance.  If any of you watch the drama series Madmen, the principal character, Don Draper is forever playing to people’s emotions in an attempt to persuade. There is a classic example of this here.

In the clip, Don convinces Kodak executes to re-think their advertising campaign by considering what customers will have a ‘sentimental bond’ with, rather than mere product features. And not surprisingly, he uses storytelling to get his message across.

So is there a downside?

I once created an eLearning programme that was about preventing workplace discrimination for LBGT people. The statics were clear – if you were lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender, then you didn’t get promoted as quickly as your peers. There was also the added stress of not being able to talk about your partner and family in the same way as for heterosexual folks.  The Subject Matter Experts for the course were adamant that this was all about emotional persuasion and empathy. They felt that managers and co-workers just didn’t understand the emotional impact of discrimination, even if it was unconscious.

So most of the content focussed on action and consequences stories. We told 4 stories, each covering a real scenario that people from a LGBT background had experienced.

When we piloted the content, while it was generally well received, about 25% of the audience felt that there were ‘too many emotional stories’ and not enough facts. They just wanted to know how to avoid discrimination. They said it didn’t matter if they were biased – if we told them how to act in the workplace, they’d do it.

Representative emotion

So perhaps the use of emotion has to be balanced with more factual type content. We also need to give consideration to making sure that the emotions we invoke are helpful ones. Imagine a course full of scary scenarios where only mistakes happen. This is fine as it goes, but it is probably not representative of real life. I believe the role of emotion in learning should acknowledge how we work – that when we make decisions, there is a certain amount of real emotion involved in it. The better we get to know our target audience and the types of decisions they need to make, the better we can balance this.

It is possible that we can overdo the emotion – people can become de-sensitised to heavy hitting stories and scenarios. In Northern Ireland, over the last few years, we’ve had a series of very graphic road traffic stories as a public awareness campaign to reduce speeding. These short films were shown at primetime on local TV. They covered the blood and the gore, the fear and the emotion at loss and injury, and the impact on families and friends. Initial research showed that the stories had a big impact, but over time, this impact reduced.

So what do you think? How have you used emotion in learning? Did it work for your target audience?

1 thought on “Emotion in Learning – Fad or Fab?

  1. Pingback: Emotion in Learning - Fad or Fab? | Future of H...

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