How To Use Emotions As Learning Superpowers

If you ever delivered a workshop, you know that feeling when your participants engage with materials,  participate actively, are curious and focused, and enjoy the learning process. It’s a joy!

You also know that oftentimes it takes a lot of preparation. Knowing the participants and their needs, carefully designing activities, interesting content, and materials to make learning optimal.

And while you may put a lot of effort into workshop design to cover all of those elements – how often do you design with emotions in mind?

While we think about keeping participants engaged and motivated, we rarely truly consider the role of emotion on learning.

This article sets out to explore how can we do that better. What is the role of emotions in learning? How can we leverage the power of emotions to make learning more impactful?

Why do emotions matter in a learning context?

Emotions are one of the most important aspects of adult learning.

They are key to engagement – they guide attention, active processing of learning in our brain, and define what we memorize.

Yet, creating emotions intentionally is also one of the most challenging aspects for a trainer.

On the one hand, it’s easy to neglect the role of emotions in general, with all the other things that a trainer or facilitation needs to pay attention to.

On the other, we may be aware that they are important but might lack ideas, knowledge, and tools on how to impact emotions and create desired emotional experiences.

To cover both of these aspects, this article is built on research-based findings on emotions in learning, as well as focused on practical tips & tricks that you can implement within your learning experiences.

First things first: What is emotion, anyway?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, emotion can be described as “a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.” Emotions are the biological responses to significant events, both internal and external.

Emotions are an integral part of the human experience. They are the flavor of life, but they also have an important evolutionary role.

On one side, we have negative emotions that are extremely important from a survival perspective. When we find ourselves in a threatening situation, they help us by narrowing our cognitive abilities or our repertoire of thoughts and actions (Williams et al., 2013) into those that might be beneficial for the challenging situations at hand. It helps us focus on solving the specific problem that caused the emotion. For example, anger narrows our thinking into more sharply focused and sets out mood into a mindset ready to attack, while fear activates the tendency to escape from danger.

Positive emotions have the opposite effect from negative ones. They widen the scope of our attention, increase our openness and receptivity to a range of experiences (Fredrickson, 1998).

Positive or negative ones, emotions are our guide because they show what is important to us. If we don’t have any emotions, most likely this situation or event is not important for us. Learning isn’t an exception.  If a certain learning experience or insight doesn’t cause any emotion, our mind thinks most likely it is not relevant.

This makes emotions a crucial element for learning. Let’s explore why and how!

To understand the emotions better… let’s start by categorizing them

To understand emotions better, we can start by recognizing different dimensions according to which we can categorize them. We will explore together several of such categorizations – so you have a chance to recognize how many new directions we might take in working with emotions in learning – and then we will see how to apply one of those models (the one with activating or deactivating emotions) in learning experiences in practice.

Activating-deactivating model of emotions: Is this emotion calling me to act or to slow down? And is it pleasant or unpleasant?

The first step in understanding the emotions better is to recognize the two dimensions of each emotion: valence (does it feel good or not?) and level of activation (does it motivate me to act, or to step back?) (Pekrun, 2014).

Valence refers to the level of pleasantness we assign to each emotion, varying from pleasant to unpleasant (or from positive to negative).

Note: In this naming, “positive” simply means pleasant. Unfortunately, naming commonly used for “positive” and “negative” emotions can lead to the wrong conclusion that negative emotions are something to be avoided. All emotions serve a certain purpose, and all of them are an integral part of the human experience and can’t be avoided. The wording “positive” and “negative” simply refers to the pleasantness of the experience.

The level of activation refers to the type of energy and behaviors each emotion provokes. It can vary from activating (motivating us to some action) to deactivating (motivating us to stop action).

With those two dimensions in mind, emotions can be divided into four categories:

  • positive activating – eg. enjoyment, hope, excitement, arousal
  • positive deactivating – eg. relaxation, relief
  • negative activating – eg. anxiety, anger, shame
  • negative deactivating – eg. hopelessness, boredom

The tendency of emotions to make us feel good/bad, and to activate/deactivate means that emotions deeply influence our thinking process and behaviors.

As the level of activation and pleasantness has a huge impact on our motivation and engagement, this is also the model that we will be using throughout this article when talking about the practical side of using emotions in learning.

“Positive” emotions make us more open-minded, curious, creative, more oriented towards the bigger picture, noticing patterns and making connections. “Negative” emotions put us more in “tunnel vision” – our focus shifts to immediate, sequential, more to details than bigger picture (Fredrickson, 1998).

Activating emotions are then better for when one needs to step into action, be motivated, experiment, get actively involved. Deactivating emotions, on the other hand, might be better for moments of deep reflection and developing new insights, as well as observing and listening to participants in a more focused way.

For educators, this means that we can consciously choose what kind of emotions would be good for a certain activity.

How do you know which emotions would be best?

Start by asking what attitude, mindset, and behavior from participants would be the best to achieve the learning goals. Then, ask what emotions would bring them closer to that mindset and motivate them into those behaviors.

After having that clarity, we can work on creating those emotions in the group of participants.

Emotions in a learning context: What does the research say about the basic set of emotions for learning?

Apart from seeing emotions as activating/deactivating and pleasant/unpleasant, let’s also have a brief look into what does the research says about the basic set of emotions for learning.

Which emotions should we consider when building a learning experience?

Then, we will come back to explore how to use activating/deactivating and pleasant/unpleasant emotions in building a learning experience.

First of all, keep in mind that a basic set of emotions for learning is yet to be fully determined at the moment. The insights I am offering here come as a mix of different research, with a lot of personal experience in teaching and education.

It is important to recognize that during the learning process participants can get into a broad variety of emotional states. Many of these states can be supportive of learning.

To recognize that breadth of options, check a proposed set of emotions that might be rising during learning (Kort et al., 2011).

Such a broad range of emotions for learning implies that there is no one “right” or “optimal” emotional state for learning.

Instead, as educators, we want to be aware of all the diverse options so we can leverage them to make learning more impactful.

How do emotions impact the learning process? Specifically, please!

When we talk about learning, there are four important aspects that emotions influence.

Those are attention, motivation, learning strategies, and self-regulation of learning.

1. Attention

Attention refers to our ability to actively process information from our surroundings while at the same time tuning out irrelevant details and content.

You can think of attention as a highlighter – when you read a text, the highlighted part will stand out and cause you to focus on that area.

Attention is limited in its capacity so it is important to manage it carefully.

Emotions have a big impact on our attention because they guide it towards the “object” (person, idea, situation) that the emotions relate to.

In the learning context, it means that our emotions can help us focus more on the topic or they can direct us away from the learning process.

Pekrun’s research (2014) has shown that positive emotions related to the task we are doing increase performance. If we feel curiosity, enjoyment of learning, or excitement about learning topics, materials, or exercises, our emotions are focused on the process of learning and that’s where our attention will be.

On the other hand, positive emotions which are not related to the task (or learning in general) can reduce performance.

For example, if we are more focused on accomplishment and the sense of pride because we got all the correct answers on an exam, our attention will be on the outcome, not on the process of learning; hence, performance can be reduced.

Negative emotions such as boredom or frustration guide attention away from learning, and consequently they can undermine learning and performance.

That means that we want to stay away from those emotions for the major part of the learning experience – although there are also moments in training when these emotions might be welcome (as you will discover later in this article).

Tips from trainer’s experience: How to keep the attention high?

After looking into the research, here are also quick practical tips from experience on how to keep the attention high:

  • Use novelty and surprise. One of the best ways to guide participants’ attention is to introduce some new element every once in a while, like the style of teaching or activity, or simply make an intentional “mistake”. Our brain is wired to pay attention to novelty – let’s leverage it!
  • Evoke the relevant emotion before the main learning points. Aim to evoke participants’ emotions just before the most important learning points in the workshop. Focus more on changing the type of emotion, than the intensity, because if we make emotion too intense it will be hard for the participants to focus and think clearly.
  • Don’t overwhelm with content. We’ve all been there. Trainers, especially when excited about their topic, have a tendency to squeeze in too much content into the workshop. When you realize you might be going overboard with the amount of content, make sure to highlight the most important info, repeat it multiple times in multiple ways, and connect it with other parts of the content.
  • Use “dual channels” (auditory and visual). Always try to have congruent audio and visual information on the topic you are talking about. If visual and auditory input is not well aligned, your participants are likely to have a harder time understanding the content and keeping the attention high. On the other hand, if one of these two channels is underused, you are missing out to use the full capacity of their brain and cognition – and potentially you are making things a bit boring. So, use them both, but also pay attention to making them aligned around the same message.
  • Remember that attention follows interest. Try and find ways of how you can connect participants’ personal interests with the topic you are delivering. Ask questions, connect them with real-life examples, try to understand their perspective – and keep linking them to the content of the workshop.
  • Keep in mind the impact of the group relationships on attention. If participants feel supported, connected and sense of belonging in the group, it will make them more motivated to collaborate and support each other in learning. However, if they get more focused on others than the topic or exercise, relations with others can also hinder the learning. Aim to build positive relationships in the group, without allowing it to turn into distraction from the learning.

Attention is not the only aspect of learning impacted by emotions – let’s explore several more aspects, starting with a very important one: motivation.

2. Motivation

Motivation can be described as the force that guides our behavior. It is the reason (or a set of reasons) that makes us act in a certain way and guides us towards a certain goal.

There are two main types of motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation – it comes from within ourselves and it’s often connected to personal values, beliefs, and interests;
  • Extrinsic motivation – it comes from the outside, and it includes some sort of reward for our behavior, whether it’s in the form of money, trophy, praise, and other ways of social recognition.

Both types of motivation are relevant in a learning context.

In academic settings, there is a big emphasis on external motivators such as grades, praise, and competition.

Later in life, when we are enrolled in higher education or we learn outside the academic context, when most extrinsic factors are removed, those who are most successful in learning are those with highly developed intrinsic motivation.

The question we need to ask is how are different types of emotion connected to motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic?

  • Activating positive emotions (e.g., the joy of learning) can increase both interest in a topic or a task, as well as intrinsic motivation for learning. They do it by helping us recollect positive memories and positively evaluate the value of the task we are doing, as well as our own competence (ability to learn) (Pekrun, 2014).
  • Deactivating positive emotions and activating negative emotions are a bit more complex:
  • Deactivating positive emotions (e.g. relaxation or relief) can reduce our motivation to continue making an effort at the present moment,but at the same time, they can reinforce our motivation to try again later.
  • Activating negative emotions, specifically anxiety and shame, reduce interest and intrinsic motivation, but they can induce motivation to invest effort in order to avoid failure.
  • Deactivating negative emotions (e.g. hopelessness, tiredness) reduce all kinds of motivation to learn.
  • Some of the negative emotions (especially emotions triggered by cognitive challenges, eg. confusion, light frustration, feeling challenges) can enhance motivation, as long as the student expects to solve the problem. In other words, challenging situations are fun if we believe we are competent enough to deal with them.

Tips from trainer’s experience: How to motivate participants?

  • Give them a strong “why”. To enhance intrinsic motivation in your participants, it’s important to give them a strong reason “why” and “what’s in it for me?” – Why are they here? Why should they be invested in this topic? Showing relevance for their real-life and the benefits of learning this topic can influence the joy of learning and motivate them to put in more effort.
  • Choose interesting materials. Interesting materials combined with concrete examples that they can easily translate into their everyday life is a simple, yet effective way to increase motivation. Examples (or stories) are the key to keeping it more colorful for our brain.
  • Embrace the frustration. Don’t be afraid to create a moment of confusion or frustration for your learner. Try giving them tasks that are a bit above their current skill level or require some thinking and consolidation of information to be solved. Our experience has shown that by doing that you can encourage the participants to embrace the challenge and increase their interest and effort in solving it. As a result, participants can have higher levels of positive emotions about learning, their own sense of competence increases, and most importantly, they learn more. Keep in mind that the crucial thing, when creating a moment of confusion or frustration, is to resolve it positively by the end of the activity or end of the training.
  • Variability is your best friend. Even the most pleasant emotions can make attention and energy low if you stay with them for too long – it simply gets too relaxing and cozy. That is why creating variation, novelty, leveraging surprises and meaningful changes in your workshop plan is the key to keeping a positive and varied flow of emotions beneficial for learning.

Apart from attention and motivation, another aspect of learning that is highly influenced by emotions is learner’s choice of learning strategies. Let’s discover more about what that means!

3. Learning strategies

Learning strategies are sets of actions, tactics, and skills learners can use to enhance their learning, retain more information and be able to recall information.

There are many different types of learning strategies and not all of them are suitable for all learning situations and materials.

Emotions are connected to learning strategies because they create more (or less) flexibility in the use of learning strategies. It means that learner has more (or fewer) choice and options of a strategy that they apply in a given situation. More strategies mean more ways of engaging with the content and more ways of building understanding.

We can say that the “optimal” emotions for learning are then the ones that help the learner to be more flexible and creative in choosing the most impactful learning strategy for them for specific learning material.

How do specific emotions impact learning strategies?

  • Activating positive emotions (eg. excitement, challenge) helps employ flexible, creative, and deep learning strategies, as well as the organization of learning material and critical thinking.
  • Activating negative emotions (e.g. anger, fear, upset) can have the opposite effect and induce rigid learning strategies such as simple rehearsal and memorization.
  • Deactivating positive emotions (eg. serenity, relaxation, pride) can reduce systematic use of learning strategies while deactivating negative emotions can reduce the use of any strategies and promote shallow processing of information.

Tips from trainer’s experience:

  • It’s all about ownership. If we give more freedom to learners to choose their learning strategy, that will increase their motivation and enable them to choose the strategy that is optimal for their own preference and needs in learning.
  • Trainers can promote ownership by giving them options and choices whenever possible, and an active role in choosing both activities and ways in which they can participate. For example, let them choose their own role in roleplay, have them vote for a preferred topic from a list of possible topics, or have different questions to work on in small groups and allow them to choose the group which speaks the most to their interests.

Let’s now explore another aspect of learning that is shaped by emotions is: self-regulation.

4. Self-regulation of learning

Self-regulation of learningincludes various activities the learner can do related to planning, monitoring, and reflecting on their own learning process.

How do emotions impact self-regulation?

  • Activating positive emotions (e.g. joy, curiosity) promote flexibility in thinking and actions, and more self-regulation in own learning
  • Negative emotions (e.g. worry, annoyance) undermine flexibility and ability to regulation own emotions, motivation and behaviors

Tips from trainer’s experience: How to support their ownership and self-regulation?

  • Let them define their own goals for learning. Ask participants to write down their own goals for learning or have them share their expectations at the beginning – in this case, make sure they share expectations from the training, but also from themselves and the group.
  • Have them play an active role in learning. This one is closely related to ownership we already mentioned when talking about learning strategies. Invite your participants into an active role straight at the beginning of the training – you can do it explicitly and tell them that an active role is the best way to learn, but also you can do it in more indirect ways. Some effective strategies can be to tell them “why”, to invite them to give you feedback when their interests are diverging from the current topic, to be active, to contribute to others, to ask them what are their main goals and interests, why they are here, etc.
  • Have them write an action plan. Invite participants to write down an action plan in the end of the workshop or activity, and to share it with their pair or a group.

What intensity of emotions is good for learning?

But emotions are not just about their quality and “flavour”, are they? They are also about intensity.

As always, the most interesting question for us is “How will the emotion intensity impact the learning process?

Too low intensity? Emotions don’t have much of an impact on the learning, participants are not that engaged, and memory is not really “sticky” for new insights.

Too high intensity? Participants can’t think clearly nor maintain their focus. Cognitive abilities are disrupted by strong emotions. This includes memory, attention, active reflection, and processing of the content.

Even if emotions are of the right “flavour”, too low or too high intensity can disrupt the learning!

Just like in many other things in life, moderation is the key to successfully leverage of emotions for impactful learning.

The key is to have participants in just the right amount of emotions that can enhance the learning process and make them focused and engaged.

It can mean experiencing either positive emotions such as the joy of learning or curiosity about the topic, or negative emotions such as confusion! Or even both at the same time.

While generally speaking moderate intensity is optimal, there are also moments in training when we might want to have our participants highly excited, or a bit more relaxed in order to recharge.

The key to a successful learning experience is for the trainer to consciously choose in which parts of the workshop will each of these intensities be most beneficial.

Learn to appreciate “negative” emotions, too

Now, it might be the right time to mention here one more aspect of emotions in learning that often gets neglected: and that is allowing your participants to experience unpleasant emotions too!

While negative emotions (e.g. confusion, frustration, annoyance, feeling challenged, mild stress, etc.) are not something we want to have present in most of the workshop, they can be a very valuable addition to the learning process.

They can focus and strengthen the attention to the problem (if the emotion is about that problem! and not be annoyed with a trainer or another attendee :D) and make participants more perseverant in solving it.

They also keep engagement by providing more diversity in the “flow” of the experience throughout the workshop, more diversity, and novelty.

They also lead to stronger positive emotions right after a “challenging” situation is resolved – e.g. feeling of relief, accomplishment, joy, etc. – and that makes the experience and insight much more memorable.

At the same time, if too many such emotions are present (or too long, or too intense) they come with a couple of dangers: they might be demotivating, participants’ attitudes and energy might become negative, and they might start having negative feelings about the workshop overall.

So, think of them as a spice – add them in moderation, not too intense, and they will enrich the flavour (and memorability) of your workshop.

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When emotions get out of control

In real life, even if you put a lot of effort into creating a learning experience that should evoke the right emotions, sometimes emotions get out of control.

Your learners may become too relaxed and as a consequence bored, or they may feel that the challenge is too hard and start doubting themselves, or they have never truly connected with the topic and don’t find enjoyment in the learning process.

All of the situations can have a negative influence on their learning and you may not be able to fulfill your learning goals for the session.

Although research and practical tips on what to do in those situations are very limited, we wanted to share what has worked for us based on our experience.

Here are some suggestions you as a trainer can use, complementary to all the theory and advice from previous chapters.

Tips from trainer’s experience: Traps to avoid with emotions in your workshop

  • Make sure that the learning situation is not mentally too demanding, while physically underwhelming. Think about how you feel when you have to sit still for too long, or you are doing something that is monotonous for a longer period of time. We are sure your attention goes away from the task, and you may even become frustrated or simply physically uncomfortable. Divide content into chunks, make sure you have enough breaks, include some physical stretching, and vary your activities.
  • Watch out for those deactivating positive emotions. You want to have a balance between challenging and easier tasks, and while easier tasks are good for recharging, too much relaxation can negatively influence the learning process. On the other hand, if your topic is more theory-focused, always try to include activities that require your learners to be active participants. It can be as simple as having them think about your last few sentences and how they relate to them or giving them a question related to a topic where they have to rate themselves on a scale from 1 to 10. This will prevent them from becoming too relaxed and losing attention and interest.
  • Also, watch out for too intense activating negative emotions (anger, anxiety, strong frustration). Sometimes they can become too much for participants, especially if a topic is sensitive or your learners don’t have strong emotion regulation strategies. Learn how to recognize when those emotions show up and try to actively deflate them. It can be through some physical action (e.g. shaking out hands) or through guided debriefing. By doing this you are preventing them from disrupting the learning process for themselves, and perhaps for other participants, too.

Moment to reflect:

What specific activating positive emotions are you creating in your workshop(s), and how are you doing that? How are you dealing with activating negative emotions? How can you ensure that deactivating positive emotions don’t trigger learners to go into too much of a “passive” mode? What do you need to do to ensure you are not creating deactivating negative emotions?

7 tips to ensure a positive impact on your learners’ emotions

Tip 1: Start by noticing more

The first step in incorporating emotions in your workshops or learning experiences as “superpowers” is to start noticing them more.

During your workshops try to notice:

  • Which are the moments that there is a boost of positive emotions and energy?
  • What actions precede that moment?
  • What is the emotionally strongest part of your workshops (e.g. opening, small groups, discussions, closing..), and what is the most challenging one in terms of emotions?

Start by noticing tendencies and correlations.

When you understand it more deeply, you will also be able to start being more proactive about managing it.

Tip 2: Leverage the contagiousness of emotions

If you are not sure how to start evoking the different emotions you want your participants to feel, the easiest thing you can do is to lead with your own example and show them by getting in that emotion yourself.

If you want them to be curious about the topic, they need to see you interested and excited too. If you want them to experiment and not be afraid of trying new approaches and perhaps failing, then start by making a mistake and show them how everyone can learn from it.

Here you have to be careful because not only positive and pleasant emotions are contagious – all of them are! It means that if you are feeling anxious, distracted, or bored with the topic – your learners will probably “catch” those feelings too.

That is why learning to manage your own mental and emotional state is the foundation for any group management.

Tip 3: Don’t get mixed up yours and theirs

While emotions are contagious, that does not mean that the participants will follow on all of your emotions.

You do want to lead with the emotions that you want for them too – but don’t be deceived that just embodying that emotion is enough!

One of the dangerous traps is to base our assessment of participants’ emotions or energy levels on our own. It can backfire in many ways: I feel my batteries are full, so I don’t give them a (needed) break. I am tired so I keep the pace slow (and they get bored). I am in a good mood and motivated about the topic so I don’t notice they got pissed off at each other.

To avoid this trap, it is crucial to keep an eye on monitoring my own energy and emotion, as well as keep a separate “eye” on their emotions and energy. For that, you can observe their body language, levels of energy, and emotions in voice, but you can also measure it with the group or ask for their feedback about it.

This is especially important in virtual workshops, where the trainer has a bit less of a “feel” for the room.

Tip 4: Set intentions for which emotions you would like to create and do a “walk through” through your design

While it is important to be aware of existing emotions in the learning room, it is important to have clarity on what emotions would be valuable and impactful for the specific part of the learning experience or the workshop.

Start by asking yourself, what emotions would you like (overall) for your learners to experience at this workshop?

One of the best steps to check what emotions you are creating with your learners (regardless if you are creating them intentionally or spontaneously) is to do a “walk through” your workshop design.

Go through the “flow” of your session design and ask: “What emotions are learners likely to have in this part of the workshop? What emotions would I like them to have? What emotions would be (more) beneficial for their learning?”

Try to truly put yourself in the participant’s shoes and ask: “What would I be feeling at this point if I was a participant in this workshop?”.

Recognize which emotions are likely to rise. Keep in mind how activities “flow” together. Also, take into account that participants might enter the workshop with different emotions and moods.

Finally, if you notice some “weak spots” in emotions within your design, ask yourself: “What emotion would be more beneficial here, and what can I do to create it?”.

Then, make a plan on how you can nudge them into the emotions that are most beneficial for their learning journey – while being realistic about what emotions are possible based on their current state.

Tip 5: Recognize that confusion can be a good thing

Some negative (or better said unpleasant) emotions during the learning process such as confusion or frustration are not only welcomed but also something you should encourage. They are an appropriate response when working on challenging tasks and they can encourage participants to become more engaged with the materials.

To provoke confusion, design tasks or problems that are just above the current skill level of your participants, but be careful not to make it too challenging, otherwise, they might just give up. Just remember to always end on a positive note, make sure to resolve any confusion left before the end of the activity or training.

Tip 6: Look the strike the balance – balance in the intensity of emotions, and balance between confidence and boredom

Just like with anything else in training design, when working with emotions you need to make sure not to go to extremes. Of course, you want your participants to be happy and excited about the journey, but not so much that they are too overwhelmed and can’t focus. On the other hand, you want them to feel good and relaxed, but not too relaxed so they get bored and lose interest. Moderate intensity is the key.

And in terms of balance, just like you want to balance theory with more practical parts, or active with reflective activities, you want to have a balance of emotions in training.

Different emotions may be useful in different parts of your training – for example, curiosity and confusion when working on a task, and a sense of relief and relaxation during the debriefing – so make sure not to forget to plan for all of them in your design.

One of the most important aspects of training to balance is how high is the challenge that you set for your learners – in other word, balancing their confidence without allowing them to slip into boredom.

What does that look like in practice?

A healthy dose of self-confidence can help your participants enjoy the learning process, and also lead to more pride in the results they achieve.

However, as trainers or facilitators, we need to keep in mind that too much confidence in a task can cause boredom or loss of interest in our participants. If you notice that happening, the easiest thing to do is to increase the challenge or personal interest in the task. On the other hand, if the task is too challenging, you may want to lower the challenge a little and encourage the participants to try harder by focusing on their strengths and resources or engaging the support of a trainer and other participants.

Tip 7: Start building your toolbox

Ask yourself, what are my tools (and tips and tricks) that I can use to impact my learner’s emotion?

Start making a list and gathering that toolbox. When you do something in training that seems impactful, capture it in your toolbox!

Examples of tools you might add to your toolbox:

  • powerful questions that evoke curiosity
  • building a habit of asking them for their thoughts before you offer the answer (even when presenting a model or theory)
  • colorful stories and examples
  • music and images that you use in training to evoke emotions
  • activities to build trust and interaction in the group
  • playful and intriguing activities related to the topic that you deliver
  • creating space for participants to get to know each other and share their insights
  • quick breathing exercises or mini-meditations to manage your own energy and emotion
  • … and many many more.

Keep your toolbox in mind when designing and delivering a new workshop, so you become more and more agile in leveraging it when useful.

Moment to reflect

Which of these tips would be the “biggest win” in your workshops, if you would start using them?

In which other ways can you incorporate emotions better in your workshops, for more impactful learning?


The effect of emotions on learning is highly important, yet often neglected.

Knowing the principles of emotions and their connection to different parts of the learning experience can help you as a trainer or educator to bring your content and outcomes to higher levels.

The most important thing to remember is that while emotions and their effect can be complex when done correctly they can be your biggest ally in creating meaningful learning experiences. Just like positive emotions don’t always benefit learning, unpleasant emotions aren’t always unwanted guests in the process of learning.

For almost everyone, enjoyment of learning has a big positive impact on the learning outcome, and one of the easiest ways to use this connection is to link positive emotions to the tasks of solving cognitive problems and studying learning materials.

Likewise, it’s almost universal that unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, shame, and boredom reduce performance.

However, it’s important to remember that less intense versions of anxiety, self-related anger, or shame can promote learning if students are confident in their success and if we close the process on a positive note.

Moderation in the intensity of emotions is the key.

Let’s not leave it just on theory!

Action time: Start choosing emotions present in your “training room” a bit more intentionally – refer to many tips in this article to choose the best ideas for you to implement as your “next steps”.

Also, remember that you can be a good model for the emotions you are trying to evoke in them, and whenever it is possible give them some level of autonomy in shaping their learning process.

It’s time to take an active role and let’s all start designing learning experiences with emotions in mind. 🙂


  • Goetz, Zirogibl, Pekrun & Hall (2013) – Emotions, Learning, and Achievement from an Educational, Psychological Perspective
  • Kort, Reilly, Picard (2011) – An Effective Model of Interplay Between Emotions and Learning: Reengineering Educational Pedagogy – Building a Learning Companion
  • Reinhard Pekrun (2014) – Emotions and Learning
  • Williams, Childers, Kemp (2013) – Stimulating and Enhancing Student Learning Through Positive Emotions
  • Fredrickson, Babara (1998) – The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions

Mirna Smidt is an interpersonal skill trainer and coach, specializing in positive psychology training and train-the-trainers topics and a founder of Happiness Academy and Trainers Toolbox. One of the first people in Europe to obtain a Master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, Mirna is combining her academic knowledge with 10+ years of corporate experience in advanced technologies in Cisco. Mirna has been a certified trainer since 2008. She is also an NLP Master practitioner holding a range of coaching and training-related certifications.

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