The Role of Emotion in Learning Design: Did You Feel That?

May 23, 2022

Contributed by Charlotte Hills and Carl Crisostomo

It’s time to get emotional about learning. And we don’t mean feeling inspired by learning or becoming passionate about learning strategy in the corporate world – although these are certainly good things.

The Role of Emotion in Learning Design: Did You Feel That?

We’re talking about using emotion in learning design.

Research has shown that learners are more likely to remember something if it is connected to an emotion.  In school, for example, many of you may have been motivated to memorize multiplication tables by wanting to stand out as the fastest math whiz in the class.

Whether the emotional tie is the fear of falling behind others or the thrill of achievement, leadership should harness this power to enable employees to improve and succeed.

Why does emotion in learning matter?

Far from being emotionless, our workdays are filled with human feelings, desires, disappointments, and aspirations. The recent Nike video, “Dream Crazier,” used inspirational imagery of top female athletes and narrated by tennis champion Serena Williams. This short film uses the role of emotion and determination to achieve to leave a lasting impression on the viewer.

We can do the same with emotion in learning! By leveraging the latest research on how the brain works, this knowledge can be utilized to boost learning participation, adoption and engagement.

The problem with current learning design

Learning and Development teams often struggle in today’s workplace with numerous challenges. We all want measurable change to various problems, whether it’s creating leaders, reducing time to effectiveness, or equipping people for the future.

But to get this change, people need to feel motivated and not everyone is driven by the same thing!  So, we need to find common ground… things that affect everyone.  

That’s where learning design that taps into emotion can be helpful. Faced with large libraries of content, employees often push back when faced with a wall of courses, ebooks, blogs, and podcasts. We all understand this at some level.

If people feel like they’re all being herded into one course or series of courses that are clearly not personalized for their own situation, then the engagement level will likely be very low.

The link between emotion and learning

When people feel something on an emotional level, it helps them embed what they’ve learned in long-term memory. This stickiness can be used in learning design to help employees improve and succeed.

It’s especially powerful if you can make people feel something in response to something that they’ve done. For instance, if someone is playing a game, and they’re doing well, they need to feel that – whether that means winning at the game or slipping behind as the play progresses.

Real-life ways to use emotion

Keep this in mind when adding emotion to a learning strategy. How does the content affect the way people think and feel? This might look like creating a super-competitive challenge for one group of people in your organization –  i.e. another department might gravitate toward collaborative puzzle-solving exercises.

In short, the emotion the group feels helps the lesson to stick around.

How to use emotion in real life

  1. Look for emotion that resonates with your people.  Since we know that people tend to remember things that make them feel something, seek out or create content that is designed to engage learners whether it’s stories, videos or dynamic speakers.Remember that presentation counts. Sure, you could give your colleagues a blog post to read, but a talented live speaker will be remembered far longer (or a TED talk works, too).
  2. Use negative emotions wisely. Don’t want to overdo it, of course, but negative emotions have their place!
  3. Harness loss aversion. Research has shown that humans react strongly to the fear of losing something or missing out. If people know they might lose something they’ve worked hard to gain, they will be motivated to take action and hold onto their “stuff.”This feeling can be used in gamification such as awarding points that employees then don’t want to lose.

Using powerful emotions in learning 

As you contemplate adding emotion to your learning strategy, remember one rule of thumb: Keep the way people think and feel front and center.

Adding emotion can be endlessly creative.  An individual’s goals can be personalized for them as they are also tapping into the company’s goals!

When employees respond to emotion in training, they remember their lesson better. This also assists in making the employees’ connection to their work deeper and more engaging.

When that happens, our learning teams will boost employee success, development, and retention. That is something we can all feel good about that!


About the Authors

Charlotte is a digital learning specialist at Saba Studio and a psychology Ph.D. student at Warwick University. She works to bring evidence-based design practices to life.

Carl is Saba Software’s Product Manager for Content and is responsible for its content strategy. He’s a learning professional and storyteller who believes in using corporate learning to not only solve client problems but also to change people’s lives.

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