Should Technology Play With Students' Emotions?


It’s no secret that students arrive at school feeling unfocused and unmotivated. After all, being pulled from your slumber and sent somewhere full of rules you’d rather not follow tends to be demoralizing. Kids also have other, subjectively more important things on their minds, such as the angst of being a kid.

Among the challenges schools and teachers face is figuring out how to get students into a cognitive state that’s conducive to learning. Research on the connection between emotion, learning, and technology would seem to be fertile ground for a solution. Multimedia lessons contain a variety of features--pictures, colors, sounds--that can be tweaked in ways that influence emotion or mood, but are unlikely to interfere with the cognitive processes at the heart of learning.

Before asking whether technology can induce positive feelings, however, there’s the question of whether such feelings are actually beneficial for learning. Some research suggests that emotions can impede the encoding and retrieval of information. Essentially, “feeling” something requires the brain to do work, and that leaves fewer resources available for the learning task. There is also evidence (PDF) that elements designed to induce positive emotion in multimedia tasks (“seductive details”) can distract from the core learning activity.

Fuzzy Feelings, Better Learning

But feeling good has also been found to improve learning outcomes. Research has shown that positive emotions can enhance interest and motivation. They can also improve problem solving by allowing for more flexible cognitive processing (PDF).

A trio of recent studies sought to answer the question that researchers have left dangling: Can multimedia tools improve learning by inducing positive emotions?

The initial research ( PDF) was led by Eunjoon Rachel Um, then at NYU, and it examined 188 students who worked through a multimedia lesson on immunization. To better understand the effect of emotion induced by the lesson, Um and her team also looked at the effect of emotion produced prior to the lesson. To do so they split students into four groups:

  • One group had positive emotion induced prior to the lesson--this was done by having participants read a series of positive rather than neutral statements;
  • A second group had positive emotion induced by the lesson--this was accomplished by altering the lesson so that it used warm colors (yellow, orange, pink, etc.), round shapes, and eyes on inanimate objects--elements known to induce positive emotion--rather than shades of gray and rectangular shapes;
  • A third group had positive emotion induced both prior to, and during the lesson;
  • A fourth group had positive emotion induced at neither time point (i.e. they read neutral statements and learned from a lesson with grays and rectangles.)

The researchers evaluated learning with pre- and post-tests, and also measured participants’ self-reported motivation, perceived difficulty of the lesson, mental effort, and satisfaction.

Um and her team found that positive emotion--whether induced before or during the lesson--led to more learning compared to neutral emotion. In addition, positive emotion induced during the lesson was superior to positive emotion induced prior to the lesson in two ways: It lasted longer, and it appeared to improve the degree to which students were able to transfer the newly learned concepts to other domains.

Why might the internally induced positive emotion have been more effective? Participant responses suggested that it improved performance by reducing the perceived task difficulty and increasing motivation.

The findings were largely replicated among German graduate students in a 2014 study led by Jan Plass--one of Um’s co-authors on the original paper. In one experiment the researchers induced positive emotion through color or shape, rather than both of them together. They found that either one was sufficient to raise comprehension.

Richard Mayer and Gabriel Estrella of UC Santa Barbara set out to see if researchers using other materials could reproduce the effectiveness of emotional design. Mayer is the man behind the “Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning,” ( PDF) a theory that lays out how multimedia can enhance learning, but also accounts for how extraneous bells and whistles can harm learning.

Meyer’s results mirrored those found by the NYU researchers. In two experiments students using a lesson designed to induce positive emotions demonstrated more learning. There was also some evidence that the emotional design led to greater student effort and lower ratings of perceived difficulty. When combined with the studies from Um and Plass, the research provides support for the idea that small tweaks in multimedia lessons can improve performance by enhancing positive emotion.

Judgmental Cameras?

There may still be certain situations where emotional design is ineffective, however. That’s why it’s interesting to think about emotional design in tandem with new research on the ability of webcams to detect student emotions. I’ve covered one such study from 2013, and in a new study a different research team also reports promising findings.

The long-term possibility--and this may strike you either as utopian or dystopian--is that webcams can recognize the emotional state of students learning from computerized lessons, and the lessons can then use that information to alter their form in some way. That is, if a student seems sad or nervous, the program may use colors or shapes to induce a happier state. If the student already seems in good spirits, the program may instead focus on reducing distractions by avoiding additional stimulation.

Researchers have been looking at the connection between emotion and learning since long before a computer in every classroom was a sane thought. But it could be computers that eventually allow their work to make a large-scale impact on a day-to-day basis. 

Stay up to date on edtech. News, research, and opportunities - sent weekly, for free.

Who we are

EdSurge helps schools and colleges find, select and use the right technology to support all learners.
© 2011-2017 EdSurge Inc. All rights reserved. Every student succeeds.