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Inside Out: emotion and memory in e-learning

Many of my most important life-lessons have come from Disney movies: follow your heart, always let your conscience be your guide, don’t underestimate the importance of body language, hakuna matata means no worries for the rest of your days etc.

These are life lessons that apply in many different situations and have guided me throughout my life.  This being the case, it came as no surprise the other day when it occurred to me that the 2015 instant classic Inside Out actually has quite a lot to teach us about e-learning.  Let me explain…

The central characters of Disney Pixar’s Inside Out are a human girl named Riley’s five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.  Together these characters form not only Riley’s personality but also – and here’s the key point – her memories. Everything that Riley has experienced and remembered throughout her life is shaped by her emotions, which is very relevant when your job, at its core, involves helping people to remember things!  Disney strikes again with the useful life lessons.

Of course, we’ve long known that emotion can add value to a learning experience.  Experiences that are associated with strong emotions are much easier to remember than non-emotional ones – I, for example, remember family trips and experiences from my early childhood much more strongly than I remember anything I learned in school at the time.

But learning too can sometimes be associated with a strong emotion, meaning that it becomes more easily remembered.  In Inside Out we see that Riley’s strongest memories, her ‘core memories’, are always associated with a strong emotion – these are the events in her life that she’s unlikely to forget and which shape her as a person.  Good learning will become associated with an emotional tag – we understand the information emotionally and are able to form connections between different ideas and concepts using our emotional understanding of it.  This makes it easier to later remember the information or apply it to new situations; in other words, to learn.

But can we actually make an e-learning experience memorable? Come on! Our learners go through so much e-learning they’re drowning in it!

Yes, it’s a challenge, but the fact remains that we remember things we have an emotional reaction to, so getting our learners to remember something about the experience of the learning is a good way of getting them to remember its messages.

I’m sure we can all agree that happy memories are the strongest.  When we experience happiness our endorphin levels rise, contributing to a good feeling.  In this way, our brain remembers the thing that triggered the good feeling, so triggering happy emotions while learning is a good way of helping people remember.

I know what you’re thinking – “she’s been watching too many fairy-tales if she thinks anybody’s going to be ‘joyful’ doing an e-learning course,” but hear me out.  There are actually lots of ways of triggering good feelings during a learning course.  The most important of these is the sense of achievement that learners get from mastering something new, which we can magnify by using features such as gamification.

Every learning experience should be a meaningful challenge for learners, rather than just a passive taking-in of information.  People enjoy challenging themselves – evidenced by the popularity of things like puzzle games and pub quizzes.  And, yes, people tend to sign up for those challenges themselves – it’s a different matter to be signed up for some mandatory training by someone else – but how often have you seen someone dragged reluctantly along to something like a pub quiz or an escape room who ended up really enjoying themselves?  The key is the challenge itself. It needs to be hard enough to get people thinking and rewarding enough to release those endorphins.

We constantly try to think of ways to make e-learning ‘fun’, but are often held back by somebody saying, “But remember, this is a serious, important topic.” But ‘fun’ doesn’t have to mean silly. We can make people feel like they’re having fun just by giving them meaningful challenges and a sense of achievement.

One of the other ways of triggering joyful feelings is one that, for one reason or another, doesn’t end up getting used very often: humour.  Often, as soon as it’s suggested that we might use a humorous metaphor, scenario or character in a course, the objections start flooding in: not everyone will get the joke, we have to be sensitive to cultural differences, that wouldn’t happen in real life, and, of course, “This is a serious, important topic.”  These are all valid objections of course, and humour certainly doesn’t work in some situations, but there’s no denying its power to help you remember.  Think back over courses you might have done in the past – did any involve humour?  If so, they likely stick out from others you’ve done as unusual, more fun, and more memorable.

Sadness, or more importantly an understanding of the negative feelings of others, can also be a powerful aide to learning.  As humans, we have evolved to be highly empathetic to the experiences of others.  When we watch, read or hear about another person’s experience our brains actually experience the emotions as if they were happening to us.  If Pixar is to be believed, this is because we all have a character like Inside Out’s Sadness in our heads.  Sadness is very empathetic to the feelings of others, which is shown to be, in a sense, her superpower.

This is something which we can harness when it comes to designing learning.  Our empathy is one of the key reasons that we enjoy stories so much, and stories are one of our most important learning tools.  It’s been estimated that about 65% of our daily conversations are made up of stories and gossip; it seems to be the way we like giving each other information, and this is often because stories have an emotional dimension.

Let’s imagine you’re creating training on Good Management Principles for Team Leaders.  You’d be much more likely to remember the story of Poor Pam and her emotional turmoil as she tries to manage her unruly team than you would a list of ‘important things to remember when managing a team’.  By getting learners invested in Pam emotionally, watching her struggle and doubt and ultimately triumph as she puts the Good Management Principles into practice, you’re making it much more likely that learners will remember them.

And if engaging learners’ emotions is particularly important for your subject matter (for instance for soft skills subjects), you might consider using video, as this can heighten the effect.  However, beware of allowing it to become cheesy, as training videos sadly often do.  Your script needs to be well written and delivered, or you run the risk of characters telling you what they’re feeling rather than you understanding it empathetically.

Empathy is a great way of helping learners to remember important points but is also one of the most useful skills for a learning designer.  Understanding the challenges, fears, hopes and motivations of our learners will help us to create more effective e-learning, which is why it’s so important to try and get a sense of who end-users are before we begin. Often, we hear about learners second hand, or not really at all; so this can be challenging, but it’s vital to producing training that’s really going to make a difference.

It can be helpful to create a profile of the ‘typical learner’ and then ask them questions – what do they want? What are they worried about?  What are they going to do with the information we give them? – in an attempt to get under their skin.

In Inside Out the character of Fear is the one who keeps Riley safe, by protecting her from doing things like sticking her fingers in the plug socket.  As Riley discovers, while positive experiences keep us interested and spur us on, fear protects us from making mistakes, though it can be a good motivator too.

It can be helpful to introduce failure into learning design as a way of getting learners to understand how to succeed.  This could be simply by learning through your mistakes (e.g. the learner takes one route on the branching scenario, finds herself going down a wrong path and goes back one step to try a different route) or it could be through understanding the emotional consequences of failure.  Stories can come into play here again, as having an emotional stake in a character’s journey will not only spur learners on to do better but also help them to understand the negative consequences of failing.

You can heighten the impact of ‘the fear’ in a course by, for example, introducing gamification elements.  If getting a question wrong means losing a life or losing coins that they’ve built up, learners will become emotionally involved in the activity – they are fearful of losing the game.  And if this ‘fear’ can be in some way tied to real life consequences (e.g. losing coins is equivalent to losing customer trust) then learners will begin to have an emotional stake in the topic and be able to connect that to real world concerns.

Anger is the character who reflects the frustrations and annoyances of life, and if you’ve ever had to sit through an e-learning that you really didn’t want to do then you’ll understand why he sometimes has flames coming out of the top of his head.  This becomes especially true if the user experience is boring or clunky, or if the whole thing feels pointless.

As Learning Designers we understand that learners will often be doing our training when they don’t really want to.  User Experience Designers try to make the experience of navigating a website as smooth and intuitive as possible, and we need to be doing the same.  This doesn’t just involve making navigating the course easy and fluid, it also means not forcing learners to go through the training in a way that feels unnatural.  This may, for example, mean moving away from the traditional click or scroll through from beginning to end approach; laying out everything learners might need up-front and then letting them pick and choose, or using adaptive design to learn about someone as they learn and then adapt what they see accordingly.

I’ve sometimes heard that the title of Learning Designer should be changed to ‘User Experience Designer’, which I think hits on an important point.  We should perhaps move away from thinking about ‘the learning’ (the information) and ‘the experience’ (the interactive bits) as two different things and should instead try and combine the two.  As well as creating more effective learning, this is likely to mean a less frustrating and anger-inducing experience.

The Inside Out character Disgust is portrayed as a small, green woman with a permanently unimpressed expression on her face – an expression I have often seen (and made myself) when presented with a poor piece of e-learning.

It has sometimes been said that any content, even poor content, is better than nothing.  This is usually associated with the view that ‘content is king’; get the content right and you can work out how you’re going to deliver it and what you’re going to do with it later.  But is this actually the case?  Can some ‘content’ actually be so boring and badly thought out, and the learner so disgusted that they’re forced to sit through it that it actually has a negative effect?

Have you ever sat through a half-hour course full of dull explanations, or word-for-word reiterations of some regulation or policy?  And how far were you through the course before you thought, “They call this training?  I could have Googled this, it would have taken me five minutes,” or “I know all this already when are we getting to the bits I don’t know?”

Is content king?  Should we always start with the content?  Or should we perhaps start by finding out how learners feel about a topic?  It may be that engaging the emotions of our learners is as important (if not more) than making sure we cover every angle.

The fact is that if people care, they learn better.  There is so much content out there now, perhaps we do need to think more about how people can get hold of what’s going to be useful to them, and what they’re going to do with it, than about churning out yet more content.  For example, you’ve got yet another iteration of your data protection training coming up because there’s been some new regulations.  Instead of producing a whole new learning course covering every point of the legislation (90% of which is the same as the previous year’s DP course), why not spend some time answering learners’ actual questions? Maybe not all content is king.

A common problem is that courses are too broad, too non-specific and treat all learners the same – they aren’t all the same and will have different viewpoints, so spend some time finding out what those are.  You might get fewer disgusted looks when you say the word ‘e-learning’.

The connection

The connection between emotion and memory is well-established and is something that we should try to tap into.  In asking “What do people need to know?” we can sometimes forget to ask what they need to feel.  But doing so could help us create something that’s not only more interesting but more memorable.

As humans we are very emotional creatures – our experiences and memories, as well as those of other people, have a profound effect on us, something which is explored in Inside Out (and always leaves me a weeping mess by the end of the movie), but also has implications for the way we learn.  So when you’re designing a course, don’t forget to take Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust into account, and try to engage with your learners from the inside out.

Next time: what Beauty and the Beast teaches us about content curation…just kidding.Rosie has worked as a Learning Designer for six years, designing and developing a range of training solution for clients such as PwC, RBS, BNP Paribas, Reckitt Benckiser, Novartis, UN agencies such as the IAEA and UNHCR, Age UK and Civil Service Learning.

Rosie believes in the power of stories to facilitate learning; if you can get people to relate your characters and scenarios, they’ll be much more likely to understand and remember. She has a regular column in e.learning age magazine.

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