Emotion in Online Learning

By Cait Etherington
July 04, 2017

Emotion is powerful. It helps us remember, motivates us to keep going, and conversely, sometimes causes us to give up or avoid taking risks. For this reason, emotions are integral to learning.  It is no surprise then that emotion in online learning is an important topic but perhaps one that has yet to receive adequate attention.

Memorable Educational Experiences

David GuralnickIn a recent talk at the International Conference on E-Learning in the Workplace (ICELW), Dr. David Guralnick observed that when most people are asked about memorable learning experiences, they nearly always describe something that happened to them during elementary or high school and perhaps, higher education but very seldom describe a workplace training experience. Why? One reason may be that the training sector has yet to fully appreciate the value of making learning memorable and moving.

In “The Heart and the Head,” published in Inside Learning Technologies & Skills in 2016, Guralnick reflects further on the issue, “A key, often-overlooked factor affecting how seriously people take an educational experience is the degree to which they connect emotionally to the experience. Training perceived as dry and boring, irrelevant, or unnecessary not only fails to achieve desired performance goals, but can have all sorts of negative effects on a company’s culture and employees’ feelings about their jobs.”

“Good design is a very interdisciplinary thing,” observes Guralnick. This means that good design has to pay attention to the psychology that underlies the learning process and not just to content and format questions, but all too often this is ignored.

Make Training Scenarios Relevant, Concrete and Fun

For Guralnick, the magic formula to ensure one can connect emotional with a training course involves making courses relevant, concrete and fun. To begin, as he observes, “People respond well to things that matter to them, both in terms of the content and the type of experience.” In other words, if you’re training attorneys, the person delivering the training needs to be recognized as a peer.

Guralnick also emphasizes the importance of keeping training scenarios concrete: “It’s all too easy for a subject matter expert to distill ‘core content’ down into a list of abstract concepts and facts that people need to understand. And such lists are often quite accurate. But someone who successfully memorizes facts and concepts doesn’t necessarily know how to apply them on the job – and even more critically, even the best-intentioned learners tend to tune out such lists. Concrete, specific content, particularly in the format of stories and examples, resonates with learners.”

Guralnick emphasizes that effective and affective learning works in part because it is fun:

Who doesn’t like things that are fun? Almost no one – it’s sort of in the definition of fun, really, that people will like it. But a deep emotional connection with an enjoyable educational experience comes from participating in an experience that’s not simply ‘fun’ in a general sense of fun, the way watching a TV comedy might be, but a type of fun that is integrated into an experience that’s also relevant to their job.

For this reason, Guralnick also admits, “I’m a big fan of humor.” However, he warns, humor is context specific: If you’re training people to work in a prison or emergency room, humor may not be appropriate.

Evaluating Emotion in Online Learning

But can you measure emotion or learners’ emotional reactions to a training course? This is where things get challenging. As Guralnick says, “I wish we could measure care but the data is mostly anecdotal.” The same holds true for most emotional situations and states associated with learning. Measuring other desired learning outcomes (e.g., did the student master the skill in question) is simple, but measuring a learner’s emotional response to a course defies most quantitative measures. While there are many qualitative approaches that can be deployed (e.g., interviews or focus groups) these approaches are especially challenging in the case of online learning where learners are not physical present in a single location. Moving forward, finding a way to measure emotion in online learning will enable instructional designers to create more effective and relevant courses.


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