Capturing and Harnessing Emotions in E-Learning

We know that we remember experiences associated with strong emotions better and with more clarity than non-emotional ones. It stands to reason, therefore, that the deliberate fostering of an emotional bond or connection in training would make it easier for learners to recall the information later and apply it to new situations.

Attention is also an emotion-driven activity. In order to gain and maintain an audience’s attention, we need to trigger the emotional responses. Only once we have captured and focused learners’ attention can we teach them.

As Dale Carnegie wrote in “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion.” We work and learn at an optimal level when our emotions are engaged or when we are motivated by emotional influences.

By harnessing the power of emotion, you can help ensure that learners will learn better and that the act of learning will be imbued with meaning, motivation and purpose. As Mary Helen Immordino-Yang wrote in her book “Emotions, Learning, and the Brain,” “In short, learning is dynamic, social and context-dependent because emotions are, and emotions form a critical piece of how, what, when and why people think, remember and learn.”

Emotive E-Learning: Hijacking Emotions for Impactful Learning

How can learning practitioners incorporate emotion into e-learning initiatives? Capturing and harnessing emotions for learning is a more complex task than just creating an environment where learners experience joy, surprise or anger. It requires the understanding that we are not scared of the dark; we are scared of what’s in it. We are not afraid of heights; we are afraid of falling. Once learning practitioners have made this connection, it is easier for them to find ways to channel emotions to make the learning process more effective.

Emotionally driven e-learning experiences can be powerful, profound and impactful. Successful courses involve multiple emotions that complement or contrast with one another. When designing the learning experience, it’s important to be aware of the different emotions that the learners are exposed to at any point in time through content, visual and auditory channels.

There are a number of design tools that enable learning producers to “highjack” learners’ emotions. This is an exhaustive topic that sometimes becomes technical, but here is a quick overview of the most important guidelines pertaining to visuals, acoustics and sound, and content.


Visuals can have a major influence on learners’ emotions. The three areas to focus on here are the selective use of color, typography and imagery.


Different colors evoke different emotions. For example, red suggests passion or aggressiveness, while yellow can indicate danger. It is important to check that the colors in e-learning are aligned with the emotions the content is trying to arouse. One helpful tool that can assist with color association is the Plutchik Wheel of Emotion.


Typography can affect mood, and font can distract learners from content. While it’s axiomatic that clean clear and simple fonts can convey consistency, trust and confidence, some fonts have more subtle nuances. In fact, one experiment suggests that we are more likely to believe a statement based on the font it’s written in.

In order to gain and maintain an audience’s attention, we need to trigger the emotional responses.


A picture tells 1,000 words, and it can also evoke a plethora of emotions, depending on the nature and the content of the image. For example, if you include a photograph of an individual who looks confident and self-assured, you can help learners feel the same. Equally, a photo of a person who is stressed, angry or upset will likely evoke those same unsettled emotions.

When selecting images for e-learning, it is critical to think about how they will impact learners. For instance, if they need to feel uplifted and motivated to learn, images should be powerful and inspirational. If they need to feel relaxed, images should be calm and serene.

Acoustics and Sound

Sound is key to e-learning design, and many ubiquitous sounds evoke emotions. For instance, wind chimes can trigger a feeling of restlessness, and a vibrating cellphone typically comes across as annoying. Furthermore, learners can tell the difference between a shriek of fear and a shriek of happiness based on their experience and the context. In fact, a recent study found that most people are able to discern as many as 24 emotions based on nonverbal noises.


The use of stories, anecdotes and real-world examples helps make content emotive and relatable. If a story is interesting and compelling, it will make participants more interested and emotionally invested.

Emotive elements are the building blocks of a good storyline. In the foundation, we have to create an overall feeling of belonging, helping the learner form a bond with the learning environment. The next layer entails interactions, where the learner becomes a part of the story rather than a passive observer. By this stage, we have not only established an emotional commitment, but we have also empowered the audience.

Engagement is not enough to hold the audience’s attention, so the next layer should include some action, by creating anxiety and urgency, adding some elements of tension that can lead to shock or surprise, or creating a layer of suspense or mystery that holds attention. We also cannot forget the power of humor and fun — but it’s important not to use humor for the sake of humor. The topic should lend itself to using humor and related emotions.

Another effective tool is the introduction of failure into the learning design. Exposing the learner to a situation where failure is a possibility encourages an emotional response to the challenge, creating the motivation and drive to conquer. The feeling of accomplishment is especially powerful when it follows a failure.

A Final Word

E-learning initiatives that appeal to learners’ emotions engage and motivate them and, more importantly, create an experience that is memorable and learning that is retained and applied on the job. Use these tips when creating your next e-learning deliverable, and you’ll enhance the impact of your learning experience.

If a story is interesting and compelling, it will make participants more interested and emotionally invested.

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