Emotion in Learning

emotion in learningThe behavioral and cognitive views of learning essentially viewed us as formal logical beings. And while a nice conception, it turns out to have little correlation to reality. More recent research, which can be characterized under the banner of situated cognition, recognizes that our thinking is much less rational than we’d like to believe.

Recent books have laid out the challenges. Andy Clark’s Being There pointed out how our perception of the world is a combination of what we perceive and what we recall, and much is constructed from memory. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, as well as the behavioral economics work characterized by Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics, similarly showed the fallacies that our cognitive architecture is prone to.

The story is one that emphasizes how our emotions can influence our decision making. And, not surprisingly, it can influence our learning as well. If we’re going to do learning right, then, we have to understand what emotions have to do with learning, and then what we should do about it.

Emotional Architecture

The emotional system overlaps with our cognitive architecture, but also has its own mechanisms. We’re aware that our bodies can be awash in emotional reactions that clearly come from beyond our neural system, and it turns out other systems play a role. Indeed, it’s proposed that emotions predated cognition, given that our cognition is a relatively new development. And clearly, we can react emotionally before we react cognitively!

At a level below cognition, neurochemicals carry emotional messages. And these chemicals can have an effect. A negative emotional reaction can trigger stress, which, over time, can harmfully affect our systems. And positive reactions such as gratitude and laughter can lead to better outcomes.

Emotions are a difficult topic, for instance there continues to be disagreement about what, exactly, the core emotions are. Yet, it’s clear that they can be influenced. For our purposes, symbolic elements are likely to be the mechanism to trigger specific emotions by design, though it’s possible to affect the others directly with particular sensory stimulation (think: flashing lights, loud noises, and sudden appearances). These primary sources are either hard-wired evolutionarily, or reinforced behaviorally through conditioning.

We are, however, more likely to care about some more than others. Mild forms of fear, lust, rage, and panic/grief may be tapped into, but for an ultimately positive experience, we’re likely to want to emphasize care, seeking, and play.

Emotions and Learning

Emotions affect learning. Nick Shackleton-Jones, in his book How People Learn, goes too far in saying that all we remember is the emotion, but he’s correct that we remember emotional events more strongly. And it’s clear emotions play a role in learning.

For one, do you learn well when you’re really anxious? I’ll suggest the answer is no. The Yerkes-Dodson Law (relating “arousal” to performance) shows that we perform better with a little stress. That’s true of learning as well. However, that “little” is quite low. Hence the recommendations for making the learning space “safe.” That is, it’s okay to make experiment, try different things, and make mistakes.

Also, how well do we learn when we don’t care? Again, I’ll suggest that the outcome won’t be optimal. A part of my research, as portrayed in Engaging Learning, was that there’s an alignment between what makes effective practice and what makes an engaging experience which shows that learning can, and should, be “hard fun.”

The elements that lead to this alignment include a meaningful goal, the right amount of challenge, a compelling context, and a lack of complete predictability. These are also the elements that turn instruction into a learning experience.

Designing Engaging Learning

So, what do we need to do to create experiences that are emotionally engaging as well as educationally effective? We need to embed those elements of meaningfulness and challenge in systematic ways.

There’s a process to follow. You have to go beyond the traditional instructional design elements, to add in the emotional aspects, and fine-tune. The practice is the core part, which flows immediately from the objective. You design the practice first, and then add in the necessary other elements.

To find why the material is intrinsically interesting, you need your subject matter experts (SMEs). While they’ve typically been used for knowledge about the domain, here they play an additional role. There’s a reason why they’ve spent the purported 10 years to become an expert, and you want to comprehend that, and bake it into the course.

They’re also the source of the key decisions that will differentiate learners before the experience and the successful performers afterwards. I use the term “decision” deliberately because I believe that what will make a difference to organizations and individuals won’t be fact recitation, but the ability to make decisions that can’t be made now.

Then you also want to find out what motivates your learners; what do they care about? (If there’s no intersection, you’ve got a problem, and probably should review whether this is truly important enough to justify the investment). You want to find a setting that naturally embeds the decisions, and is of interest to the learners. As Henry Jenkins, a media researcher, once opined: “find a role the player wants to be in”.

The challenge comes from misconceptions. You don’t want the alternatives to the right answers – whether multiple-choice, branching scenarios, or a full simulation-driven game – to be too easy. You do this by finding out the reliable way learners typically get it wrong, and making it easy to get it wrong. Er, the “right” level of easy.

By the way, you’re unlikely to get it “right” the first time. Testing and tuning is required to adjust parameters to get the experience nailed down. Tuning should be built into your approach: schedule and budget. This is in addition to the rest of the elements, models and examples, but it’s key.

So why engaging?

Is it worth it to take this extra effort? Of course. As the above suggests, if you don’t, it won’t stick. Your investment without this additional effort isn’t likely to matter. If they need it and aren’t learning it on their own (or are likely to get it wrong), it’s worth doing right. And right means addressing the emotional needs as well as the cognitive.

Quite simply, emotion is part of our thinking and learning. If we’re going to successfully address thinking through designing learning, we have to include all the elements. As Beer, et al, pointed out (PDF) in The Great Training Robbery, studies estimate only 10% of training investment has an impact. You only need to look at the boring eLearning out there, and recall how people are staying away in droves.

If it matters, you should engage them. If it doesn’t, why bother? Hook them emotionally, address them cognitively, and keep them engaged. It works, and that’s what you should care about.