Behavioural science principles : emotion in learning

Published by Kelly Wright on

Behavioural science principles: emotion in learning

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Is there a place for emotion in learning?

Yes, there is. But that’s a very short blog, so indulge me for a moment. 

Last year I experienced some issues with anxiety. Following some appointments with a very enlightened and understanding GP, I was advised to (amongst other things) look up Stuart Sandeman, the founder of Breathpod, who specialises in breath work for health and performance. 

I was willing to try something new. Well, it’s not that new – according to, it appears I have breathed approximately 288,430,560 times so far (and counting). How hard could this be? 

I found Stuart on Instagram and saw that he regularly runs free live sessions. I joined the next morning and, along with several hundred others, listened as he guided us through the breathing practice. As I began to relax, Stuart invited us all to move from our head space into our heart space. 

Now, if you’ve ever experienced anxiety (Who hasn’t? Thanks for that, 2020!), you’ll know that your head space can be a noisy, disruptive, sometimes scary place that can be very hard to escape. 

And I did find it hard to get out of my head that day, and the next. But gradually I was able to leave the thinking behind and get to feeling, just for a short while every morning. 

I can hear you. “Good for you, but what has that got to do with learning?” Fair question. 

Well, using my breath as a tool has not only done wonders for my anxiety, but it has enabled me to notice how I really feel. Not in a logical “I’m breathing, so I feel OK” way, but in a deeper way that helps me listen to my truest sense of self. It has helped me connect more deeply with my values and drivers, likes and dislikes, purpose and passions. I now truly understand the meaning of ‘heartfelt’. 

In Brené Brown’s video about emotions, she explains why this self-awareness is so powerful: “If we don’t understand our own emotional landscape, we don’t understand what’s driving our thinking and driving our behaviours… Make no mistake, emotion is at the wheel, we are emotional beings.” 

So, if we don’t check in to our emotions, and we don’t know what’s driving our behaviours, how can we even begin to change them? 

abstract light in heart shape

So, why don’t we see more emotion in learning?

Learning experiences often send us firmly into our head space. We stick to the facts and focus on what we need to know. Thinking has its place in learning design, but we miss an opportunity to truly change behaviour if we don’t include emotional connections too. Emotions such as joy or surprise can motivate people and help them to remember things (Nishida et al., 2009).  

Learning is so often about self-discovery – how we feel about difficult situations, react to challenges, overcome adversity, handle pressure, celebrate success – these are all opportunities to include emotion in learning and create an experience that changes hearts as well as minds. 

How we have used emotion in learning

When a client asked us to design their onboarding experience, we talked about emotion from the first meeting. Empathy mapping helped us to gain insights on how recent joiners felt in those first hours, days and months in a new job at a new company. 

We used this information to build in ‘heart space’ moments: By asking the learner how they were feeling at the start and the end of the experience and at key moments throughout, we invited them to feel, rather than think, just for a moment, without any pressure. 

By giving them the option to choose from a few common feelings (taken from those new joiner insights), we reduced the risk of any performance anxiety. Feedback on their choice reassured them that they were not alone in feeling like this, which reinforced a sense of community that is so important in an onboarding experience. 

We use emotion in all sorts of learning

We also explored how emotion could add value when another client asked us to develop a learning programme based on the steps of an end-to-end process. We created a character who had been performing the tasks for the last 12 months and now had the benefit of hindsight. This character appeared in very short videos throughout the programme to share her wisdom, but she did not talk about how to perform the steps. Instead, she shared how she felt when she performed them for the first time – the nerves she felt when she had to present her findings, the adrenaline rush of a looming deadline, and the joy she experienced when she delivered the final step. 

By positioning these alongside the process, these one-minute moments provided valuable insights into how you might feel when you do the job and, more importantly, that this is OK. Your emotions are allowed. 

These are just two examples of how we use emotion in learning as part of our behaviour and design mantra at BAD. If you’d like to talk about how to use emotion in your learning, contact us. 

If you would like to harness the power of your breath, please check out Breathpod and Stuart Sandeman’s book, Breathe In, Breathe Out. It is life changing. Don’t just take my word for it. Read this article. 


close up of person meditating

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