How to Support Learners' Emotional Response to Embed Learning 🧠

Emotions play a crucial role in how we learn. The more emotionally engaged we are, the more the learning will stick. In this article, our L&D expert breaks down the best ways to support learner's emotional responses and some of the reasons why planning training with heart is worth the effort.

A red arrow points to the amygdala of the brain, indicating the power of emotions in embedding learning in the workplace.
Emotions play a crucial role in how we learn and retain information. The more emotionally engaged we are, the more the learning will stick. In this article, our L&D expert, Laurence, breaks down the best ways to support learner's emotional responses to better embed your learning, and some of the reasons why planning training with heart is worth the effort.

Human beings are constantly experiencing ever shifting emotional states. Our every waking minute is governed in some way by how we feel - our emotions exert a powerful influence on our individual thinking, planning and behaviour. While we know this to be true, it makes it all the more strange that we often seek to remove emotion from the equation when it comes to matters of work (the phrase “It’s just business” springs to mind!). Knowing what we know about the power of emotions to influence our thoughts and actions, does this really make the most sense? Rather than seeking to suppress or remove emotions in these contexts, might they actually be an untapped resource that could motivate our employees to excel in their training and go on to achieve even greater things?

One well trodden but very universal example would be the subjects and classes we enjoyed the most at school (or at the very least the ones we didn’t hate!). Take a moment now and compare the knowledge and understanding you retained from those subjects you actually enjoyed with the ones you just couldn’t stand. It should be fairly obvious that your emotional responses directly influenced the retention of information and the cementing of concepts in your brain. Those emotional responses you had to school subjects were mostly involuntary - yes they were influenced by external factors like the teacher’s delivery style, the other people in your class or even how comfortable your chair was - but the fact remains that you ended up retaining more information in long term memory because of how you felt about your learning.

Put this way, it may seem utterly obvious that emotional responses to learning are very important, but this is something that is very often overlooked when it comes to workplace training. How often do we ask new hires to read a handbook, watch a training video or - horror of horrors - sit through another powerpoint presentation? Aside from the inevitable passivity these modalities encourage in employees (room full of blank faces anyone?) they very rarely seek to evoke an emotional response in the learner.

“But our videos have fun music!”

“I’ll have you know I put amusing memes into my powerpoints!”

Unfortunately, even the most thoughtful insertion of media into your workplace learning is probably going to fall short of the high bar set by attention grabbing content that dominates the web and social media. The truth is many employees will be avid digital content consumers themselves (or maybe even creators!) so their expectations for visual and engaging informational content are already going to be very high.

School sucks.
Photo by Tony Tran / Unsplash

So how might you start to harness emotional responses, that we know from our school days example can be so powerful when it comes to embedding learning? One approach would be to do an honest and data-driven appraisal of your current training content where you look to understand how your current training makes your learners feel. Anonymous surveys or feedback forms can provide good insights here. If you find that learners dislike, or worse still, are indifferent to your training, it’s unlikely that learning will be deeply embedded and employees will be unable to draw on knowledge when it counts.

By gaining a data-driven insight, you can then identify the areas where you’ll need to target specific changes to your learning content and delivery methods, to harness the power of emotion for embedding learning.

To Stress or Not to Stress?

Most professionals are exposed to some form of emotional stress at some point during their work. Whether it’s ever shifting priorities in the lead up to a deadline or rescuing someone from a burning building, it’s an unavoidable part of taking on responsibilities and striving to do a great job. It stands to reason that we should actively consider the level of stress and challenges that employees may face in their work when designing workplace training. This is often the approach of educators in healthcare and medical settings, where trainers will seek to expose learners to realistic high-pressure simulated environments, to reduce potential anxiety when they come into contact with the real life situation. Similar careful acknowledgement of the challenges faced by employees in all professions is a key part of designing effective simulation based training.

While healthcare settings such as hospitals often have dedicated simulation centres where learners can be immersed in this type of training, it is less common to find these in other workplaces. We might try to talk through examples of challenging scenarios or do roleplay exercises, but these rely on learners to suspend their disbelief or put themselves in the shoes of another. They can also require learners to expose potential weaknesses in front of others, something most employees will be very reluctant to do. Again, emotion is playing a big part in how much learners will engage with and ultimately benefit from the training that we have designed.

Simulation or experiential approaches to training have been shown to elicit stronger emotions for learners and promote more embedded learning, leading to better on-the-job performance. Challenge and even stress can, and in some cases probably should, be thoughtfully employed to prepare employees for the realities of their role. But we must also be mindful that they may want to practise these scenarios at their own pace without being observed by others. The takeaway here is, look for ways to reduce training anxiety while providing realistic learning experiences that can leverage emotion to embed learning into long term memory.

Curiouser and Curiouser...

Another exciting area of research related to learning is looking at how curiosity might impact a learner’s emotional responses during training.

Very often we hand employees all the learning materials they need in one go - in handbooks, guides or presentations. We expect them to digest all of it with the same level of enthusiasm, retain it and draw on it when needed. But this form of information leaves little room for them to feel a sense of discovery or surprise, both of which can be powerful positive emotions in the context of learning.

Museums, galleries and tours are a perfect example of when curiosity drives learning: allowing individuals the freedom to explore an environment at their own pace, creates a sense of wonder and intrigue that you’re unlikely to get from a manual or a textbook. Thinking about learning as an experience rather than an exercise is the first step towards activating learners’ curiosity.

Photo by Artur Matosyan / Unsplash

Ask yourself now, are there existing parts of your training programme that could be delivered as an interactive tour? Or a game where learners need to solve a puzzle? Is there information that could be hidden or withheld and then revealed with dramatic effect? This may sound a little corny at first, but bear in mind the power of eliciting genuine emotional responses during training and the enormous impact this can have on long term retention of information and improved recall during work-critical situations.

Eyes On The Prize

Scientific research has shown that rewards and affirmation of positive performance promotes improved levels of engagement with learning materials and learners’ motivation to complete training.

Photo by Jason Goodman / Unsplash

Again, this should teach us as training designers to never underestimate the emotional power that lies behind a simple point-scoring system, arranging prizes for employees with the biggest training improvement, or promoting friendly peer-to-peer competition during training courses. There is sometimes a danger that ‘feedback’, ‘appraisals’ and ‘rewards’ end up being the remit of managers alone, but these are all incredibly effective emotional tools that you can and should be drawing on from your box of training tricks! Look out for opportunities to employ games, rewards and point scoring to surprise, delight and motivate your employee-learners during their training.

Top 5 Ways To Use Emotion In Workplace Training

So to summarise, here are 5 ways that you can begin to employ emotion into your workplace training today:

  1. Find out how your employees feel about your current training by gathering data
  2. Target places in your existing training where you can leverage emotional responses to better embed learning
  3. Consider the elements of your employees work where they need to be prepared for challenge/stress and design your training accordingly
  4. Imagine what your training would look like as an experience, that could make your learners curious and eager to find out more…
  5. Be creative with game-elements, prizes and competition to surprise and delight your employees

Your first move supercharge your workplace training may be as simple as switching up the dusty old powerpoints for a more engaging teaching style, but you may also want to try switching up the format of your learning using innovative technological solutions, like immersive learning and interactive video.

Interactive Video - Immersive Video Training with Lasting Impact

If you've read this far, you might be interested in Virti's Interactive Video Platform, which empowers you to create interactive videos to help your team learn, improve and communicate.

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