Learning and Development in the modern age is more than just ticking boxes. It’s about truly engaging your learners and driving a change in their behaviour. That’s why it can be so disheartening after going through so much effort to design and deliver engaging courses to see all that learning go in one ear and out the other. What’s the missing piece of the puzzle?

Have you considered evoking emotions for learning?

Knowing how emotions are linked to learning can give your courses the edge to transform your learners. Emotions link to learning as an evolutionary trait. Think about times before written language, how experiences were foundational in learning survival skills. The emotions attached to memories, feeling scared, excited, or accomplished, all assist in memory creation. The amygdala plays a vital role in emotional processing and lives next to the hippocampus in our brains, where memory retrieval happens.

The emotions linked with an experience help our brain to encode it into our long-term memory. Certain triggers, such as sights, smells, sounds or touches can retrieve memories and the emotions that are linked with them. For example, smelling pine may bring back memories of Christmas and the emotions of joy from being surrounded by family, the excitement of opening presents or the stress of shopping in time. All of that emotion from a single scent. This is because the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are all related in creating memories. The emotions that were encoded with the memory can be felt along with the retrieval of the memory.

Interestingly, the emotions required to boost long term retention don’t necessarily need to be positive. We’ve all had that moment where we’re trying to sleep, and our brain recalls something embarrassing you did in the third grade. What is your brain doing?! How can you remember this and not what you had for lunch today? It’s the emotion linked to the memory, helping you to recall it.

That’s all well and good but what does this have to do with my L&D course?

It’s well known that humans cannot process large amounts of information at one time, so what do we do? We consider the most salient points and draw our learner’s attention to them. By attaching emotions to learning, we can assist the brain in seeing the learning experience as salient, so that the brain prioritises this memory for processing.

Think about flight simulators, designed to emulate a real flight experience for training, the learning is embodied, the pilots can feel the aircraft and the stress of difficult situations before they are forced into a real-world scenario where things can go wrong. Great courses can do this! If learners are placed into environments where they can solve problems or create, consider the emotions that are attached to that. You can evoke stress from being up against the clock to make a decision, or pride in creating something or solving a complex problem.

These emotions both draw attention to experiences and motivate learners to seek out new information. Having said that, too much stress or not enough information to make informed choices can have the opposite effect and disengage learners. There needs to be a balance of challenge and what is achievable. If an experience is too challenging, it overstimulates the stress response, causing less communication with the prefrontal cortex. If the experience is not challenging enough, the learner becomes passive, and their emotions don’t cause them to seek new or further information to complete the task. Either way, the learner is disengaged leading to a lack of retention and, you guessed it, no change in behaviour.

How do I get the balance right?

This is where the learning design becomes complex. Remember our flight simulator? We need to create courses where the learner is responsible for their decisions and the outcomes of those, in a risk-free environment. This can be achieved through problem solving tasks, multimedia learning, gamified learning, serious games, virtual or augmented reality. The possibilities are endless. The learning environment should be a space where the learner is able to freely make mistakes with consequences and accountability. Taking it a step further, learners should reflect on what emotions they felt and why. Give them the opportunity to discuss what they would do the same or differently if they were in that situation again.

How we’ve applied this theory in the Wyda game

Wyda is an immersive business simulation game, in which the player must make difficult real-world decisions. Those decisions impact the people and planet in their simulated environment. They face the consequences of the decisions they make invoking positive or negative emotions, which aids in the retention of the content. Taking that a step further, the learners then reflect on what they felt and why. This allows the learners to strengthen the neurological pathways about their learning. Want to know more? Check out https://www.wydagame.com