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How online courses can nurture emotional intelligence

The ability to recognize, identify and manage our own emotions and the emotions of others is called Emotional Intelligence (EQ). As a psychological concept EQ gained traction in the 1990s with a number of research papers describing the many facets of EQ, as well as proposing that EQ was an ability that could be developed rather than simply an innate talent.

By defining EQ as a capability researchers made it possible for teachers to contemplate how teaching and building EQ could enhance a student's learning. In the last few decades a number of studies have shown quite how much EQ (both that of the child and that of its teachers, parents and mentors) impacts on a child’s development. A landmark study by Terrie Moffitt of Duke University and a team of researchers found that children who can learn by age 10 to delay gratification, control impulses, and modulate expression become healthier, wealthier and more responsible adults.

For most teachers this is intuitive: we know that children who feel emotionally safe, or who can cope with groups, and group stresses do better at school than children suffering from fear and anxiety. Additionally, the US Department of Labor issued a report in 1999 that defined some of the top skills required of workforces in the future, and the majority of them fall within the EQ function. To name a few: interpersonal and communication skills, decision making and problem solving, ability to influence and negotiate, self-esteem, listening, self-management and integrity.

Today, SEL (Social Emotional Learning) is becoming more formalized as an addition to curricula, as well as overall policy through the efforts of organizations such as the Collaboration for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). CASEL defines SEL as “The process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

How online courses can nurture emotional intelligence

So, as e-learning practitioners, what can we do to improve our instructional design to take cognizance of the fact that emotions play a key role in learning? And can online courses enable students to develop strategies to manage both their and others’ emotions, recognizing that it is also a key life skill required throughout their adulthood both socially, academically and financially.

Let’s look at some of the key aspects of emotional intelligence, and explore how online courses can be developed or adapted to enable them.


Self-awareness is the ability to accurately identify one’s emotions and thoughts and recognize how they impact our behavior. This includes being able to honestly assess our strengths and where we need to grow, leading to a grounded sense of confidence and optimism.

In terms of online learning processes self-awareness can be swiftly stimulated by asking students “why?” and “how do you feel?”. When discussing literature for instance, mine for a student's feelings about a character, and ask them why they feel that way - this is both useful in forums as well as one-on-one communication.

Feedback and assessments are naturally a minefield of emotion for students, and it is pertinent and appropriate (within the insights of the SEL framework) for the instructor to include feeling prompts at assessment:

  • How do you feel about your grade?
  • How do you feel about yourself now that you know your grade?
  • Is the feeling helpful to you?
  • What are you goals for this course?
  • How does this grade affect those goals?

Keeping in mind that online learning is often a solitary activity, simple prompts like these help students to recognize, name, express and channel their emotions precisely at the point they arise. Think about adding a private journalling module to your course, where students are encouraged to journal briefly about their feelings at the end of every lesson, assignment and feedback session.


This is the ability to regulate one’s thoughts and behaviors in various situations. Self-regulation includes recognizing and managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.

One of the tactics deployed by e-learning professionals to illustrate the consequences of making one or other decision is branching scenarios. These are open ended narratives that allow students to make their own choices, each choice influencing the narrative and the outcome.

In this way students can map the consequences of their behavior, and learn how alternate choices may have had a better outcome. Branching scenarios can be as creative or simple as you require, and can be a lot of fun to create and watch your students utilize.


It goes without saying that this is a key skill, especially with regard to online learning, which requires a high degree of self-drive and discipline. So how do we motivate students already learning in an online environment?

  • Goals: Let them write down their goals for the course, then place personalized reminders of them at the end of every phase.
  • Gamification: Adding badges and levels to your course will keep students motivated. It is surprising how the addition of these ephemeral features can boost engagement and follow through.
  • Progress tracking: It is also helpful to track a student's mastery of the subject, as this gives them a gamified view of how they are meeting their own goals.


The ability to take another person’s perspective, particularly if they are from a different background and culture is a critical 21st century skill, and enables students to better navigate an increasingly diverse world.

Online learning activities that encourage empathy include:

  • Alternate Roles: Set tasks that force students to adopt an alternate position, either in a debate or in written assignments. It is uncomfortable to be compelled to argue or debate a position we don’t agree with, but it can be very helpful in generating a more open-minded world-view.
  • Conflict skills: Team assignments are a natural space to help students develop empathy, yet being unable to absorb new ideas, or being immovable in one’s opinions can be challenging for team members. It’s a natural inclination to be “right”, in order to do that we negate or obliviate the experiences and feelings of others - a zero-sum game that inevitably leads to conflict. Remember to assign conflict resolution guides alongside team tasks that will encourage win-win scenarios.

It is encouraging to have learned that EQ is not simply a faculty some people are born with, but is in fact something that can be learned. So while book-smarts and people-smarts are different and equally important, they can both be addressed in varying ways throughout your online course.

Our exploration today has yielded a number of resources that will enable you to better understand your role in the development of your students’ EQ, and to find novel ways to grow both your and your students’ emotional intelligence.

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