The Importance of Emotion in Learning

Text saying ‘positively emotional’ over a background with many different people’s faces

We know from individual experience that our emotional state can have a profound impact on our ability to learn and remember.

Events that stimulate strong emotional responses stick in our minds, and there are evolutionary drivers for this; knowing how and where to repeat positive experiences and avoid negative ones are survival traits. We can recall events that have had an emotional impact in great detail, it’s likely that from your earliest memories onward the events that stand out are those that have either strong positive or negative emotions associated with them.

When you’re seeking behaviour change in an organisation through learning activities, we have a finite amount of time to get your message across and need to make the most of it. This means both ensuring that the audience are receptive when they start the activity and that the design is as effective as we can make it. There are a range of techniques we use to make learning experience design as effective as possible; spacing learning out, interweaving subjects, stimulating retrieval and formulation, using what Robert Bjork termed ‘desirable difficulties’(1), but how do we use emotions to improve our design?

Sometimes in the L&D world that we get a context where creating a genuinely strong emotional response is justified (and indeed possible) but there is plenty to learn from the mechanisms involved in emotion and learning and we can use these to help us optimise our design and maximise impact. The important question is what impact do lesser emotional affects have on learning outcomes and are they worth exploring?

Um et al., 2012(2) looked at emotional design in multimedia learning and came to some clear conclusions. The audience were assigned different treatment conditions defined by an externally induced emotional state as they started the activity (neutral or positive) and by the emotional state internally induced by the learning activity. Learners were asked to complete one of two identical eLearning courses on Immunisation– one with neutral emotional design and one with positive. The difference in neutral versus positive design was limited to purely visual elements of the course; neutral used grey, square plain objects whereas positive used warm colours, rounded objects and anthropomorphic characterisation of the parts of the immune system. The learning content presented was otherwise identical.

Even though the materials were somewhat ‘basic’, the results showed the positive emotional state induced had significant impact on both the learner’s ability to understand key concepts, and their ability to apply the concepts to solve problems. This backs up the findings of earlier studies such as Isen et al (1987)(3), that showed that watching a short comedy film before carrying out tasks requiring creative ingenuity improved performance by promoting cognitive organisation and creativity.

From the perspective of learning design this insight is invaluable. Of particular relevance to design is that the 2012 study(2) found that the internally induced positive emotions through positive design – an aspect that we as designers can directly influence - had the most significant impact on comprehension, the ability to understand key concepts.

The aesthetics of the experience matter - with even the unsophisticated materials used in the 2012 study(2) showing a significant effect. This is why at Unicorn we ensure we have the highest possible production values in our work and always create an aesthetically pleasing experience. We often use attractive animation up front in the learning experience to set the scene and positively engage the audience.

It’s worth taking time to understand the combination of effects behind the improved learning outcomes in the 2012 study(2). One important mechanism is that positive emotional design increases the audiences’ readiness to give activities attention and decreases the perceived effort of completing the task. As when watching a film or TV series, people are more inclined to put time and effort into a creative, well-structured narrative that looks and sounds appealing. The study also made use of the ‘baby-face bias’ effect(4) using the fact that humans are hard-wired to find rounded objects and large-eyed, characters and anthropomorphised objects appealing.

The good news is that even these basic techniques have a positive impact on learning outcomes, the better news is that there are an array of sophisticated approaches that we can use to engage emotions that go well beyond those used by Um et al. in their experiments.

In the next post in this series we’ll look at how we can apply this in practice, using aesthetics, narrative and audio/visual media to create learning activities and campaigns that stimulate emotions, have more impact and improve outcomes.

  • (1) Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and Metamemory Considerations in the Training of Human Beings
  • (2) Um, E., Plass, J. L., Hayward, E. O., and Homer, B. D. (2012). Emotional design in multimedia learning
  • (3) Isen et al. (1987). Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving
  • (4) Lorenz & Generale. (1950). Wholeness and part in animal and human community


Chris Tedd

Chris Tedd

Strategy Content Consultant

Chris has been working in technology-based learning for over two decades and during that time has…

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