Why emotional outcomes matter just as much as learning outcomes

This article is an edited extract from the upcoming June issue of Inside Learning Technologies and Skills magazine.

Last month, Nicholas Baum explained some of the principles of something called ‘me-learning’. He outlined the mechanics of how an e-learning course can become a space in which learners can visualise new behaviours in action: ‘Here’s where I am; here’s where I could be; this is what I need to do to get there’. Personalised input and personalised output via emotionally charged content is another way to put it.

The approach has been proven to work in courses such as that developed by Transport for London on mental resilience, where qualitative and quantitative evaluations drew a direct line from meaningful emotional engagement to massive return on investment. So how does it work? Where does the why really come from? What ‘buy-in buttons’ should those who design learning (and learning platforms) be pushing?

A revolution which has been gathering pace in the field of behavioural economics is highly relevant here. It’s changing the way that we are shaping the online world more generally, and e-learning needs to sit up and listen.

Traditional economics has treated the human as homo economicus, who is ‘Sovereign in tastes, steely-eyed and point-on in perception of risk’. The problem with this model is that ‘homo economicus is a rare breed.’ I would go further and say that the self-interested, calculating human doesn’t really exist at all. In fact, our brain chemistry motivates us to make decisions that aren’t necessarily rational or even self-interested.

Our memories are structured around emotional peaks and troughs, not averages or a steady accumulation of benefits. The ‘endowment effect’ means, for example, that we’ll place a much higher price on a teacup that is ours, than on an identical cup which isn’t – and we even hold on to shares long after the point where it made sense to sell them. A sense of belonging is the trump card.

This complicates our thinking about motivations for learning, and explains why the addictive learning environment can’t be as easily manufactured as we perhaps thought. It might make perfect sense to you why a learner would naturally engage with a learning intervention because it has social and game-based characteristics – that’s what creates a sense of reward, right?

But your course or platform is an imposter: it doesn’t carry with it the same emotional highs or the sense of belonging as the experience you based it on. It is a feature, emptied of emotional benefits.

To make e-learning better at changing behaviours, it’s time to start seriously asking where the e-learning course or platform that you have planned fits into the emotional narrative of your learners’ lives. What mood state are you going to capture and utilise? Most importantly, how are you going to make a learner feel like it belongs to her? In this sense, perhaps it’s time to start including emotional outcomes, as well as learning outcomes, in your next project specification.

Find out more by attending Saffron’s seminar on emotional investment in learning at the upcoming Learning Technologies Summer Forum. You can register here for free.