The role of emotion in learning

In my last blog I discussed the art of creating attention-grabbing elearning. Within this I discussed optimising peaks in attention, using multimedia, and applying as many modalities as possible. But the one thing we didn’t address is why these three things work to create attention-grabbing courses. But the answer is simple, it’s due to the learner’s emotional response.

“All learning has an emotional base.” – Plato

In this blog I will explain why it is impossible to learn without some form of emotional response, either positive or negative; and why emotion is key to creating learning that works.


Knowledge emotions

Knowledge emotions are an important family of emotions associated with learning, exploring and reflecting. There are four main knowledge emotions: surprise, interest, confusion and awe, they are considered as such for 2 reasons:

  1. The event that brings them about involves knowledge (they violate what people expected or believed).
  2. They are fundamental to learning, and over time build useful knowledge about the world.

The below graph depicts the correlation between the level of novelty, complexity and unfamiliarity of a topic, and the learners ability to understand; and how this correlation can create confusion, surprise or interest:


As you can see from the above graph, when unexpectedness is high, surprise is too. Surprise is a simple emotion, and can hijack a person’s mind and focus them on a source of possible danger. Though we don’t want to scare someone in any of our learning content, the ‘surprise factor’ can be used. Think back to the idea of stats to grab attention from my previous blog. The most attention-grabbing stat, will be the one that surprises your learner. Consider the below stats, for example:

1. Between 43% and 54% of pilots have admitted to falling asleep while flying.


2. Over 50% of pilots have experienced fatigue on shift.


Which is more surprising? Which one do you want to learn more about, or gather more information on? The first stat, right?



Like surprise, interest involves a level of unfamiliarity. Our learners wouldn’t be drawn to learn something they already know, would they? However, interest also involves a level of learner ‘coping potential’, i.e. their ability to understand. If our learners coping potential is high, they will feel capable of handling the learning, and therefore it will pique their interest.



Confusion is similar to interest and surprise, in that the content needs to be unfamiliar. However, unlike interest, this topic is hard for the learner to comprehend. Though you may assume creating confusion is a bad learning technique, it’s proven to promote thinking and learning.


Conveying knowledge emotions in learning

Now we know what the knowledge emotions are, how do we use this information to aid our learning development?

There is one easy way to provoke these knowledge emotions in learning, and that is through stories. We see stories being used to teach all around us, from children’s books that teach right from wrong, to business textbooks that explain how a recession could impact an organisation. In all of these stories, our surprise, interest or confusion are piqued; we empathise with the characters involved and we can imagine how it feels to be in the identified situation.


Mirroring emotions

We feel this way when engaging with a story due to the art of mirroring emotions. This is why some might cry at a sad film, or feel glum after watching a television advert about a dogs shelter, for example. Imitating emotions in this way isn’t an imagined state, it’s all down to mirror neurons.

Look at the image below, and pay close attention to how your facial muscles feel when you look at each quarter.

You may notice that your muscles twitched when looking at each. For example, your face may have softened into a smile when you looked at the bottom left, or your eyebrows may have twitched when looking at the bottom right.

This is mirror neurons in action. Mirror neurons not only fire up when we perform an action, but also when we observe one. Which allows learning through imitation. Our mirror neurons fire up and immerse us into a story, so that we can see ourselves as one of the characters and experience the emotion as if we were there. Which I’m sure you’ll agree, is much more effective than having a concept explained in words.


So, why is emotion key to creating learning that works?

We now know how our learners respond emotionally to the world around them, due to the science of mirror neurons. We also understand how emotional responses to learning are an indication of both the subject matters unfamiliarity and complexity, and the learner’s ability to understand. But why is knowing these two things critical in creating learning that works?

Because these emotional responses dictate how learners feel about learning or the subject matter, which in turn highlights the likelihood of knowledge retention.

Emotions trigger motivational, psychological, social and cognitive impacts to learning. Both positive and negative emotions lead to knowledge retention. Positive emotions, such as interest or surprise can impact a learners level of motivation to a subject, and as such, increase knowledge retention. However, negative emotions (like confusion) lead to cognitive impacts on learning. This results in untying learned behaviours or untrues, which again, result in knowledge retention.

Now we’ve explored emotion in learning, stay tuned for my next blog post on designing content that your learners will remember.