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5 ways to evoke emotions in elearning


“I feel, therefore I am.”

This could be the modern day rewrite of Descartes famous quote, given what we now know about the crucial role emotions play in the human brain.

In the early 1990s, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio published ground-breaking research revealing how emotions affect cognition and decision-making. He found that patients with brain damage were unable to make good decisions because their emotions were impaired, even though their other mental abilities were unaffected.

Emotions are also important for memory. The relationship is complex and still not fully understood, but the latest research suggests people are more likely to remember something linked to emotion.

In elearning, emotions can help keep learners engaged by making them care or feel empathy. Take all the emotion away from a module and it would be noticeably dull and boring. Sometimes it may be necessary to evoke strong emotions but often it is about subtlety and creating a positive emotional experience for learners.

Here are some of the ways emotions can be evoked in elearning or indeed any learning experience:  


People love stories. It is estimated that personal stories and gossip make up about 65% of our daily conversations. Crucially, in elearning a narrative needs to be believable and relevant because when this happens people are able to establish more of an emotional connection and feel empathy with characters. This ‘buy-in’ is important for learning as people are more likely to care about the consequences if they are presented in a realistic narrative.          


Video can help engage learners emotionally in a number of ways. It can be used as part of a story to heighten the experience, particularly when a more powerful emotional connection is desired. It can also deliver realism which can aid empathy. We used this approach for a project with United Biscuits where elearning was required to help staff prepare for appraisals which might include some difficult conversations. The decision was made to use the company’s staff instead of professional actors to help learners identify with the characters.     


Music is one of the most powerful emotional triggers. Scientist, Steven Pinker calls it ‘cheesecake for the mind’ because it indulges our emotions. Within elearning, music can create mood, support a narrative, add drama and tension or provide an emotional cue. But given its power, it needs to be used appropriately and sensitively.


Every image counts in elearning, and used well, they can support emotional engagement with the content. Many learners will engage with a photo or image before reading any words so getting the tone right is important. Elearning expert, Cathy Moore, has some good advice about how to find and use evocative images.   


You can set the tone of elearning through the choice of language, using words that help create the required mood. For example, if you’re hoping to motivate then words need to be positive and active. Author, Karl Iglesias, has created an emotional thesaurus to help writers find the right words to generate the desired emotional response from the audience.

For some more interesting perspectives on using emotion in learning, take a look at the experiences of Dr Julie Taylor and her work with medical graduates. She said:” Without including emotion in the learning process, it is impossible to truly engage students.”