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The power of emotions on learning

Emotions are like colors. We can categorize them, like happiness, sadness, aggressiveness or excitement (to name a few), just like we do with colors: red, green, yellow, blue... A lot of emotions belong to the same category: optimism, satisfaction, fulfillment, gladness — all fall under the happiness umbrella, just like magenta, crimson, scarlet or ruby are all red. There is a rainbow of emotions and we humans should embrace the whole spectrum.

This post will not go into more detail about how many types of emotions exist, but rather how they can affect the cognitive process of learning.

The human brain is a fascinating subject of study, mostly because it is the home of our emotions and controls our thinking and actions. You may be familiar with the main parts of the brain and their most important role. Some say the left side of the brain provides logic, reasoning, critical thinking, while the right hemisphere houses our emotions, certain kinds of intuition, or our artistic sense. Of course, this is a very rough categorization of the brain, and you can't really solve a math problem without using your right hemisphere. In fact, the two sides of the brain are more interconnected than we thought and the learning process is influenced by both emotional and cognitive brain areas.

How emotions affect learning engagement

Emotions can be compared with an on/off switch for learning. While positive emotions (happiness, excitement, confidence, joy, interest, ...) have the power to motivate learners, negative emotions (sadness, fear, frustration, anger, embarrassment, ...) can actually impede the learning process. It all depends on the context of the learning experience.

Learners can react in different ways to the same stimulus. For example, John and Bill did not pass the test at the end of a training module. Their emotions with respect to this fact can determine their future engagement:

John knows that he didn't study enough the learning materials and didn't pay much attention to the instructor's feedback either, but he is also aware that he can still get a good final test result by studying harder and being more attentive during the next training modules.

Bill is very frustrated with his result and blames the instructor for not helping him enough and providing unstructured or irrelevant learning materials. He refuses to admit that a lot of his colleagues did pass the same test based on the same learning materials and with the same instructor's support.

Being aware of and managing one's emotions may not be the easiest thing to do, but it can be done nonetheless. Adult learners can develop their emotional intelligence and deal with stressful learning situations. Self awareness, self motivation, empathy and social relationships contribute to a good management of all emotions during the learning process. Learners can monitor their own positive and negative feelings, don't give up when facing frustrations, channel their motivation to improve their performance, and relate to others in a supportive manner.

What can instructional designers do to create an emotionally safe learning environment?

How can one make sure the trainees' emotions trigger the on switch during the learning process? There are quite a few teaching techniques that can contribute to creating a great learning environment and these include the following:

Praising individual accomplishments. The spirit of competition is a great motivator, but a success can be even more important if the competition happens between yesterday and today for the same learner. Today John knows a lot more about his subject of training than he knew yesterday. By affirming this accomplishment, the instructor will motivate John to keep up the good work.

Encouraging self-confidence. Sometimes it takes as little as a smile (or even an online smiley face) to boost someone's confidence. Bill may need a little more help at this, but an honest conversation will probably reveal some clues about what causes his negative feelings.

Encouraging social relationships. Some people do learn better by themselves, but others need group activities in order to better process the new knowledge. Collaboration and teamwork are necessary in real work situations, so each time John and Bill reach out to one another or to other colleagues about their assignments they will deepen their peer ties.

Giving thoughtful feedback. Positive relationships between learners and instructors can also be fostered by listening to learner's issues, responding to their needs and giving thoughtful feedback on their progress. Besides praising successes, John and Bill need constructive suggestions for improvement in order to better perform in the future.

Emotions come in various forms, just like colors have various shades and hues. Each learner has a unique blend of colorful emotions that affect his/her motivation and engagement during the learning process. Instructional designers should not only acknowledge this, but also try to support their learners and create the best environment for them to feel safe to interact, experiment and explore new topics.

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