Over the past few decades, research has shown that emotions have an effect on many of the processes involved in learning. It’s safe to say that emotions are an influence on perception, attention, motivation, and the encoding and retrieval of information.
What follows is a synopsis of some of the many ways emotions affect these various processes. You may want to read Emotions and Learning: Part I of this series first. But it’s not a requirement and you won’t get tested.
There is little doubt that emotions color perception. They influence and bias the way we see the world. Not surprisingly, research shows that people who are in a positive emotional state will be open to a learning experience, make more positive judgments and give more favorable feedback than someone in a negative state. The challenge for designers is to create learning experiences that are sufficiently meaningful and engaging that they elicit positive reactions from learners.
In terms of attitudinal training and soft skills, it’s important to know that a person with an emotional bias may be unwilling to accept facts that cause unpleasant feelings or to believe facts that cause positive feelings, even when there is clear evidence to the contrary.
Emotions are at least partly responsible for our motivation to pursue goal-directed behaviors and activities. They serve to energize people, providing intensity and direction. For example, motivation increases when a goal is neither too difficult nor too easy to succeed. A moderate challenge is optimally motivating.
Also, studies show that a person’s affect influences the cognitive processes associated with motivation. For example, people who feel positive emotions, such as fulfillment and satisfaction, are willing to exert more mental effort to a task than those experiencing negative emotions. In addition, emotion often underlies curiosity and creativity, all of which can be motivational factors in the learning process.
Through attention, we select the object of our concentration and focus on it, ignoring the noise in the environment. Research indicates that attention and motivation are highly correlated. People tend to pay attention to those things with a higher motivational significance. Paying attention to a task implies the person expects to find or is currently finding an intrinsic or extrinsic reward.
During a learning experience, participants continually appraise the experience. This may elicit an emotional response that affects the learning process. For example, a learner who is bored might experience dissatisfaction and irritation, which can interfere with paying attention. A positive reaction to the experience should help the learner sustain attention.
Many studies show that positive emotions can facilitate the processes of working memory as well as help long-term memory and retrieval. When emotions are central to a learning experience, they can enhance a person’s ability to remember the experience. For example, when a group collaborates and successfully solves a difficult challenge, the achievement and social nature of the experience can arouse positive emotions. The emotions enhance the encoding process and make the learning experience meaningful and memorable.
When powerful visuals or emotional scenarios are part of a learning experience, these can also enhance memory. The explicit conscious memory of an emotional situation will be more powerful than a non-emotional situation.
What’s the down side of appealing to emotions during learning? Emotions can be disruptive when they are irrelevant or unrelated to learning. Irrelevant emotions seem to use up a person’s capacity to attend to a task and to remember it.
Although the dominant belief is that positive emotions facilitate the learning process, be aware that they can both enhance and detract from learning. We designers have a two-pronged challenge: to design for the emotions using instructionally appropriate and meaningful strategies and to create positive experiences that enhance learning.
The final article in this series will present practical ways to design for the emotions. Check back soon or sign up for updates through the form at the top.
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