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Oh What a Feeling: Emotion and Learner Engagement

Posted by Ellen Burns-Johnson on Thu, Oct 23, 2014


by Ellen Burns, instructional writer/designer


One of my favorite chapters from Dorian Peters' Interface Design for Learning calls upon instructional designers to create learning experiences that foster intrinsic motivation, and provides suggestions for how to do it well.

As part of my instructional designer book club (yes, you read that correctly—I am that much of a nerd), we are currently reading the fascinating to me Interface Design for Learning by Dorian Peters. Allow me to review the book: it’s good. One of my favorite chapters is the second one, in which Peters summarizes “the learning landscape,” explaining the rise of instructional design, constructivism, behaviorism, and every other -ism that contributed (or contaminated) the practice of analyzing how people learn. You should read this book for insights gleaned from that chapter alone.

But I digress.

We should design for emotion. Right?

I’ve always been fascinated by how the role of attitude, feeling, and emotion plays in learning events. Current industry thinking addresses emotions this way: someone on the team says aloud, “Yes, we must consider the learners’ attitude and motivation.”

Everyone nods solemnly.

Several people murmur, “Yes. Of course.”

Then, the topic is promptly dropped and the team returns to bickering between the words “recognize” and “identify” in the behavior-based performance objectives.

What the heck?

We all know from personal experience that learning can be emotional. Ever attend a full day of corporate training while contemplating a divorce? Go through e-learning while feeling dread for hospital test results? Try to attend an online class while yelling at the kids? It's really hard to engage in learning when your emotions are focused elsewhere.

Obviously, we designers are not usually able to control learners’ life situations and emotional states. But we can influence the many emotions invoked by training itself: resistance, boredom, anger over a newer, complicated process, frustration over extra responsibilities, fear of failing…all of which we want to avoid.

Designing for extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Peters’ book offers a full chapter titled, “Learning is Emotional.”

While the chapter focuses on interface design, I can’t tell you how tickled I am to see such a bold chapter title, the prodigal truth revealed at last: emotions are integral to learning as much as performance-based objectives.

Peters discusses the challenge of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, a topic my mentor, Dr. Michael Allen, addressed himself in his 2003 industry classic, Michael Allen’s Guide to E-Learning. Happily, Peters values continuing and furthering the conversation, integrating observations from brain research, contemporary psychologists, and educators. She quotes Edward Deci’s wise advice on the topic: “Ask not how we can motivate people. Ask how we can create the conditions for people to motivate themselves.”

Most experts agree extrinsic motivation is useful. We should harness it appropriately by finding out what matters to learners. But extrinsic motivation’s strategic value is in opening the way to its more powerful twin—intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic reward―often in the form of praise and an arbitrary sense of achievement—interferes with actual learning. If/then rewards systems (If you do X, then you get Y) tend to backfire. It’s better to sharpen a learner’s intrinsic motivation to achieve mastery, competence, connectedness, and autonomy. Those motivators are hardwired in us. Tap into those, and you can take learners to amazing places.

I love Peters’ rich conversation, especially with all the popular ‘gamification’ chatter taking place in instructional design circles these days.

Someone says, “Yes, we must consider gamifying this course to increase motivation.”

Everyone nods solemnly.

Several people murmur, “Yes. Of course.”

The problem is, games work because of the emotional component. We designers must understand the emotional context of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations behind gamification. We can't simply have learners hunt for points, or add a "boss" for learners to defeat, or create more levels of difficult scenarios. We can't just award badges to people, dust off our hands and say, “Well, now they’re motivated.”

How to design for emotion

As with every chapter in her useful book, the "Learning is Emotional" concludes with pages of practical tips for integrating emotional components. A few of Peters’ suggestions:

  • Establish a positive mood for encouraging creative thinking. Use aesthetics that trigger positive emotion.
  • Show personality through the interface. Interfaces focusing exclusively on cold corporate branding get back what they put out―lack of emotional connection.
  • Leverage images that promote relaxation and peacefulness, like nature scenes.
  • Include delighters. Giving treats to learners may influence their happiness levels. Of course, it’s a quandary to perfectly identify what a ‘delighter’ truly is. A funny video clip that’s two-minutes long may irritate people because of its length. A former president shouting “Good job,” may offend political affiliations. Test your design with users.
  • Beware of primal attention grabbers. Crediting Susan Weinschenk, Peters points out that human faces, sex, food, danger, loud noises, and stories may distract rather than support learning outcomes. Unless they’re directly related to the content, they’re likely to just steal focus and burden cognitive load.
  • Make tasks difficult to keep learners engaged. Easy gets boring! Engage the appropriate level of challenge and you’re more likely to engage learners' emotions as well.

In creating this list, I skipped several other recommendations, each one worthy of consideration when adding emotional components to interface design (and beyond). This chapter, like so many others in her book, requires multiple readings to fully absorb the vast richness within.

One can only wonder what might happen if our industry seriously contemplated emotional components when discussing design strategies. How might our results change? What if we actually valued learners enough to move beyond murmuring, “Yes, of course” and giving lip service to the emotional side of this equation?

It boggles the mind.

It’s hard to describe in rational, logical outcomes. 

I guess you could say, I would feel…happy.

Want to share this post? Here are some ready made tweets!

Click to Tweet: How does attitude, feeling, and emotion play into learning events? http://hubs.ly/y0f4Bz0 #elearning #onlinetraining via @customelearning

Click to Tweet: We should design #elearning for emotion, right? Ellen discusses emotion and #learnerengagement http://hubs.ly/y0f4Bz0 by @EllenBJohnson

Click to Tweet: Designers can influence the emotions invoked by #training: resistance, boredom, fear. http://hubs.ly/y0f4Bz0 "Emotion & Learner Engagement"

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