Many think learning is a dispassionate exercise for thinking only—anything that engages feelings will only hinder rational thought. But emotions are a central part of the learner experience because they are a central part of the human experience.
In fact, eLearning can be a roller-coaster of emotions for learners, from the excitement of opening the first lesson or the pride of completing an assessment well, to the anxiety of using new technology and the loneliness of trying to connect with others asynchronously. While emotion is rarely the actual objective of a course, its presence has an impact on the cognitive and social experience of the learner and shouldn’t be ignored.
Emotions can even be fruitful in eLearning when the designer or instructor truly understands their function. Some believe that positive emotions can help facilitate memory and decision-making skills if they are tended to skillfully. But without this expertise, manipulation of learner emotion can backfire. Consider the role of stress in forming memories: gamification of the process of handling tense situations on the job can increase learner’s capacity to recall important information later. But the stress of trying to “win” the game can also cause learners to shut down or panic, making it difficult for them to take in new information.
Examining emotions through the CoI model
The Community of Inquiry (CoI) model is helpful in exploring the three conduits for emotion in eLearning: social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence. You can think of these aspects as the community, design, and content of a course.
Social presence (community)
Positive emotions can help develop a sense of community, which has a direct impact on engagement in the course. A strong social community in the course (including positive interactions with the instructor) can likewise increase learner enthusiasm, sparking a sense of connection that facilitates elevated discourse.
Teacher presence (course design)
The way the instructional materials are presented can also impact emotions, especially stress and pride. A well-paced course that delivers information in an effective way can reduce learner anxiety, facilitating a sense of calm that enables them to remember the content and associate the course with a positive experience. Pride, a great motivating emotion, can be cultivated by using personalized feedback and encouragement.
Cognitive presence (course content)
Another aspect to consider is how your content makes learners feels. Stories, for example, are an established method of engaging learners on an emotional level and solidifying memory. Videos, in some cases, may also trigger a sense of intimacy or relationship with the content that feels more personal and satisfying than simple text.
What the research says
One study found that emotions arise both when learners engage in online learning and when they talk about learning with their peers or instructor. While it’s difficult to pinpoint a direct correlation between subjective experience and the learning environment, researchers did note a couple of patterns that occurred across 19 different online courses. For one, some emotions are more prevalent in eLearning, including desire, enjoyment, excitement, hope, pride, unhappiness, and yearning. Plus, emotions that arose in group discussions were more complex than those reported in surveys.
Two important takeaways from this study:
- Learners experience a broad spectrum of emotions in a course, no matter what the subject matter is.
- Forums and social interactions in courses tend to stir up emotional experiences for learners. Instructor moderation is important in managing conflicts or other negative experiences that might arise when learners begin discussing the topic.
A Final Consideration
It’s important to emphasize that emotions are a subjective experience that can manifest differently for different types of learners. While we’re painting with broad brush strokes here—stress is generally aggravating and impedes the learning process, while positive emotions can increase learner engagement—how those emotions are expressed, and what triggers them, is a more individualized process. Emotions are expressed differently across cultures and age groups, and not everyone is aware when their learning is impacted by emotions in the first place. The most important thing is to simply be aware that learners are having complex feelings during online courses, and it’s up to instructors and designers to watch how those emotions impact learning outcomes.