This is the fifth post of the "Deeper eLearning Design" blog series by Clark Quinn.

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This is the fifth post in a series of six that covers Deeper eLearning. The goal of this series is to build upon good implementations of instructional design, and go deeper into the nuances of what makes learning really work. It is particularly focused on eLearning, but almost all of what is mentioned also applies to face-to-face or virtual instruction. We’ve covered objectives, practice, concepts, and examples. Here we’re talking about the role of emotion in learning, and we’ll close by finally putting it all together.

We want to shift from creating content to designing learning experiences. What this requires is addressing emotions in the learning experience, and while a bit of the work comes from the previous work we’ve covered in objectives, practice, and examples, there are nuances on those and it’s time to look at introductions and closings as well.


To start, we need to understand the effects of emotions on learning. There are a few fairly critical ones to review, including the trilogy of motivation, confidence, and anxiety, as well as the duality of positive or negative affect.


It’s fairly obvious that individuals learn best when they’re motivated. If people don’t understand why they’re being put through an experience, their willingness to invest their effort is questionable at best. On the other hand, when someone is motivated, they can engage with considerable energy and enthusiasm. Serious games, for instance, when properly tuned, can yield persistence and diligence in pursuing learning outcomes.

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is when someone provides incentives to perform, and in learning this commonly takes the form of gamification. Intrinsic motivation comes from an understanding of the personal value. The latter is to be preferred, and goes into the design of learning experiences that tap into learner values and interests. Extrinsic motivations can come into play to enhance learning, as well, but intrinsic should be considered first. Both will require tuning, and that should be taken into account.


Confidence is another factor in learning. Learners are willing to take more risks when they’re confident. Over-confidence, however, can be a problem, and some learners may need to receive some unsuccessful experiences to help set realistic self-awareness. Building confidence through graduated success is to be desired. 


People also don’t learn best when they’re highly anxious. A small bit of pressure does help, but that’s a fairly low threshold. The anxiety may be population dependent, so knowing your audience is critical. And it helps to make it safe to learn and fail while tapping into the intrinsic interest of learning and improving. 

Positive and Negative Affect:

Anxiety is a negative affect, and positive and negative affects have differing effects on processing. Negative affect, when there are high stakes and an unpleasant environment, tends to drive deeper processing, causing one to narrow one’s focus on performance. Positive affect, on the other hand, with freedom to fail and a pleasant context, causes one to be more exploratory in approach. This suggests that learning might benefit from having a lighter theme to begin and then gradually making the environment less pleasant to support more rigour once the fundamentals are established.

Opening the Learning Experience

How does this play out in designing a learning experience? There are implications for opening, for each of the elements, and for the closing.

I suggest that we need to engage the learner in the learning experience before we open them up cognitively. We know that activating relevant knowledge makes learning more effective, but here the effort is to open them up emotionally first. Learners need to ‘get’ that this is important to them. Consequently, showing the positive consequences of having this knowledge, or the negative consequences of not having the knowledge, is a way to help them recognize the value.

This can also be done dramatically or humorously. It doesn’t take much; in the past I have actually used just a single comic that illustrates the humorous consequences of not having the knowledge as a way to open a learning experience. Similarly, a dramatization of the positive consequences of having the knowledge, saving the day, could work.

A second step is to help contextualize the learning in the bigger picture. Drilling down from the broader world context both activates cognitively relevant knowledge but also emotionally situates the contribution. Whether showing how company sales are part of a larger economy, or medical procedures are a part of the larger story about health and wellbeing, connecting this particular learning to bigger goals helps ground the process.

One other consideration is the overall trajectory of the learning experience. If there is a mismatch between learner expectations and the resulting experience, learner engagement will suffer. A wildly engaging opening followed by a dull experience will lead to some dissonance. Similarly, an off-putting beginning may undermine an effective learning process. If there’s a chance, consider setting experience expectations explicitly, such as in the case of a complex concept “this may be confusing at first, but we’re providing several ways to see it, and a number of examples to help make it clear, and our practice will ramp up gradually to give you time to get your mind around it” or whatever.

Emotional Content

Once the learning experience has been established, we have the content we’ve discussed in earlier posts. There are several considerations to revisit in this process, including objectives, practice, and examples.

We should have chosen objectives that we know are important to the learner. If so, we have motivation for the content that we need to make sure is leveraged. If your objectives aren’t of intrinsic interest to the learner, that may be an indication to revisit those objectives! If they are, make sure you highlight why these objectives are relevant to them, in ways as suggested above. As mentioned in the earlier post, the objectives you show to the learners are not the ones that you use for design, but rather ones that are aligned to the learner’s interests.

To maintain the experience, our examples should be compelling. They should tell of successes or failures that illustrate how this content helps solve problems in the world. Story is critical here, and you should consider using narrative techniques that will help embellish the challenge in the situation and the value of the outcome. As we’ve discussed, our brains are oriented to process stories, but for that, the stories should be interesting. Aligning the example with meaningful objectives should make this practical.

Practice, too, can and should be engaging. The elements that turn scenarios into serious games – challenge, choices, consequences – make practice opportunities into engaging experiences. We want to ensure that the story provides an engaging setting, that the choices require sufficient discrimination to be challenging, and that the consequences of the choices are played out before the external feedback. A good practice should feel like a mini-game, or even a full one!

Closing the Learning Experience

An effective wrap-up is a necessary component to complete a learning experience. Just as we start off the learning experience by developing relevance and engagement, so too should we terminate our connection to the learners with appropriate elements.

First, our learners will have spent time and effort in the learning, and we should acknowledge that. We should recognize that they have spent time with our concepts and examples. Similarly, we should also appreciate the effort they expended in accomplishing the practice. All of this is an expenditure on their part, and we should appreciate it.

We should also indicate what they have accomplished. They now have new abilities they haven’t had before, and this is worth commending. Similarly, we should also indicate what they’re now ready for, both going deeper into the topic, and/or on to the next.
And just as we drilled down from the larger world, we should reconnect them by drilling back up. This extends the accomplishment, and places it in context. We should let them know how what they can do now means to others.

Overall, we should let them know what they’ve done, let them know they are done, and thank them for their time.


Two specific hints help make this easier. The first is about how to ramp up the emotional component. The second assists in maintaining interest.

Too often, we use situations and examples that are too mundane, particularly in practice. My suggestion is to exaggerate. For instance, in that initial emotional awakening in an introduction, exaggerate the consequences of the knowledge. Also, in examples and practice, perhaps we can make the situation more dire or important with a bit of creativity. In performance situations, we’ll be motivated by the real world consequences, and our practice environments won’t transfer as well if they’re not similarly motivating. We must be careful not to exaggerate away the core triggers, choices, and model-based relationships, but beyond that we have some flexibility.

Also consider the media you use. Too often we stay within our comfort zone, but variety is a mechanism to maintain attention. Can you use different media for your examples, such as choosing between a narrated slideshow, a documentary video, and a graphic novel format for different ones? You’re increasing the memorability of the examples, which increases the flexibility of the resulting abstracted model. Practice settings can similarly be conveyed in different ways. Also consider different forms of making choices in practice, and try as much as possible to use interactive approaches that mimic how you’d respond in the real world.

To shift from creating content to creating experiences, we need to take ownership of the emotions. Note that many stakeholders will try to rein in your creativity. Push back; your learners will thank you.


Here are links to all six parts of the “Deeper eLearning Design” series:

1. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 1 – The Starting Point: Good Objectives
2. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 2 – Practice Makes Perfect
3. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 3 – Concepts
4. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 4 – Examples
5. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 5 – Emotion
6. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 6 – Putting It All Together


Written by Clark Quinn


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