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What’s emotion got to do with my online course?

I want you to take a moment to relax, no matter where you are.

Think about your favorite memory ever. Close your eyes and take a deep breath.

Which details do you remember? Were you alone or with someone else? Were you a child, a teen, or an adult? Do you recall any specific sounds, smells, colors?

If you managed to go to your happy place, the chances are that you remember a great deal of information. In other words, this isn’t just a memory for you — it’s triggered something in your brain so now you have a boost of the happy feels, something which is scientifically proven to work.

Emotions have a significant influence on how we perceive things, what we pay attention to, our memories, and of course, learning.

Read more: 6 Neuroscience tips for better online course design

Whenever we encounter a new stimulus, different brain areas are involved in processing that information. We have the amygdala responsible for emotions, the frontal cortex, which helps us make decisions, and the hippocampus, which helps store information. They are constantly communicating, which tells us that there is more to learning than simply memorizing facts for later use. In fact...

Learning is affected by our life experiences and emotions. (Source)

As such, neuroscience can help online course creators understand how to deliver better courses. Here are some fascinating facts:

  • Events that trigger an emotional response are remembered more clearly and for a longer period than neutral events — if you’re happy and you’re learning, clap your hands!
  • We retain more information when we care about it. When we care about a subject, we also tend to have meaningful and positive feelings towards it — that’s why I know more facts about Queen (the band) than I know about Chemistry (big apology to my teachers).
  • Emotions are connected to subjects and skills. We all loved some subjects in school and hated others. Was it because the subjects we didn’t like were in themselves bad? No, our fears, anxieties, or interests all played a major part in what we liked to learn — that’s why learners who are stepping out of their comfort zones by taking a more difficult online course are the champions!

Now, your learners should preferably be well-rested and being hangry doesn’t help them concentrate at all. However, since you can’t influence these aspects, there are other things you can do to engage your learners’ emotional side.

Specifically, the recruiting interest guideline based on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework is a good place to start.

Read more: Why you should apply Universal Design for Learning in online courses

Give learners choices

Depending on their backgrounds, your learners may have different ideas and feelings related to learning itself. Some may be very confident and independent learners, while others are just dipping their toes into online learning but are apprehensive after many years of formal education.

As such, having a choice is important in self-paced courses. There are many ways to offer learners more independence, including giving them a choice of learning objectives and content formats. For example, once they start a course, there are many ways to finish it.

  • Provide multiple course sequences. Learners don’t have to have the same experience from start to finish. They can take modules in a different sequence than the standard recommended one. For example, based on their performance in a quiz, they can unlock a secret module or get a special badge.
  • Adjust the difficulty level. Depending on your learners’ goals and profiles, you might find it easier to create beginner, intermediate, or advanced courses. Alternatively, there’s also the option to build difficulty levels into the same course.
  • Give learners a choice of objective. You know what’s great about YouTube videos recently? The ability to see “chapters” or different sequences in the same video and skip what you don’t want to see. In the same way, you could organize your modules into different chunks that deal with smaller and more accessible objectives.

Relevant, valuable, and authentic content

We’ve already seen how emotions shape learning. Content that engages people’s emotional side will be more enticing and promote retention.

Sure, any course needs to start with relevant content from the beginning, so choosing a winning idea is your best bet. However, you can’t please everyone. Not all learners will find the same content or activities equally relevant. That’s why you need more variety in your content and find a way for them to relate it to their personal experiences, no matter who they are.

  • Vary your sources of information. It’s easy to get caught up in your own context and focus on the things that are relevant to you. However, to harness the power of emotional learning, you need to turn the focus on them. For example, if you like referring to use cases, don’t give examples of people of only a particular gender, ethnic group, and a narrow age range. Variety is the answer! The same goes for delivering information that is in line with people’s actual experiences. For example, a personal finance course can seem a bit tone-deaf if it doesn’t acknowledge the realities of different income levels and only deals with “ideal” hypothetical situations.
  • Use different scenarios. In scenario-based learning, learners are invited to think of different situations and use them to enhance their knowledge. For example, you can create a story arc where they’re the main characters on a learning quest. This is a fun way to motivate learners since it feels more personal and authentic. However, you also have to dig deeper and find the problems that are most relevant to them and discuss them before anything else.
  • Give a choice of activities. In self-paced courses, it’s up to each learner to complete the assignments, and most instructors don’t care that much about this part. This can be a good thing since this experience shouldn’t feel like an academic one. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that learners wouldn’t like to participate — provided that they can choose what to do. For example, instead of a quiz, they can send you an image or a short video. An assignment can be answering a question that you posted in the course forum. Alternatively, they can simply do something independently, such as cooking a new recipe from scratch or setting up an emergency savings fund.

Minimize threats and distractions

For optimal learning, people must feel that they are in a welcoming and supportive environment. These aspects can be reflected in the content you make and how you interact with learners.

Sure, you can’t control their environment and make sure that they have time to learn. However, a distraction-free course means that you’re doing everything you can to minimize the risk of digital fatigue while they’re learning. Plus, showing your support matters a lot!

  • Avoid visual distractions. There are simple things that you can do to have a clean layout with minimal visual distractions. For example, a good content layout focuses on the actual content, with plenty of white space between paragraphs. Do you use background music in your videos? That can also be distracting, especially if you’re speaking over the music.
  • Create supportive collaboration spaces. Chats, forums and groups are fantastic but can also become spaces for heated replies. If you’re not moderating these places, they can feel uncomfortable for a lot of people. That’s why you need to establish some basic rules from the beginning. Moreover, it takes some vulnerability to show others a piece of code you wrote, a photo you took, a drawing, etc. Constructive criticism means that they’ll be eager to share, while judgment is a major turnoff.

Wrapping up

Learning is more than a process of storing and retrieving information. Our emotions influence learning in so many ways, and as a course creator, it’s your job (and opportunity!) to use this connection to build better and more relevant online courses.