Emotions in Online Teaching: A Powerful Tool for Helping Online Students Engage, Persist, and Succeed

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This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

Online classes, by their very nature as distance learning experiences, present barriers to student engagement and learning. These barriers are a primary reason that we see low student engagement and higher attrition rates in online classes. But we have a powerful tool to fight for online student attention, engagement, and persistence: emotions.

Through years of research and experience, I’ve come to believe that the main barrier to online student success is the difficulty of creating social and emotional connections with and between them. We interact naturally with our students when we’re in the classroom together. We communicate support and encouragement by our smiles, eye contact, warm and friendly tone of voice, and other forms of positive non-verbal communication. We greet students in the hall on the way to class, or on the pedway later that day. We arrive early to class, stay a few minutes late to answer questions, and almost effortlessly connect with students in a myriad of tiny social and emotional ways. None of that happens in an online class.

Or I should say, none of that happens effortlessly online the way it can in person. And yet, connecting with our online students can help them engage with us, which in turn can result in better engagement with our class materials. When online students more fully and willingly engage with coursework, they are more likely to persist in the face of distance learning challenges and successfully complete our online classes. So, how do you foster connections online? How do you help students persist and succeed? By designing for emotion.

As I’ve written about before, emotions move us. They’re powerfully interconnected with cognitive processes such as attention, motivation, and memory. We overlook our most powerful weapon in the fight for student attention and engagement when we don’t put emotions to work for us in online classes.

Based on my study of Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s 2016 book, The Spark of Online Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion, as well as Joshua R. Eyler’s 2018 book, How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching, today I want to share with you several equitable and inclusive ways to engage students’ emotions in asynchronous online classes in order to strengthen cognitive and social connections. We’ll focus on simple activities and strategies you can use in your Learning Management System (LMS) to strengthen students’ interactions in your class.

Increase relevance and motivation in class activities and assignments

A2009 study conducted by Thomas Huk and Stefan Ludwigs showed that intentionally adding information to tasks that engage students’ affect, or emotions, leads to deeper understanding of the content. In this study, a control group of economics students were presented with a relatively feature-less case study requiring setting up a new business and planning strategies for its’ success.

In the experimental group, students had more details and information to bring the case study to life for them, as well as a personal incentive if the new business succeeded. They were told that the task was to establish a coffee shop in a particular city. Interviews with stakeholders provided personal details to enliven the story, and the students/entrepreneurs were offered the prospect of a place on an international trainee program if they achieved a certain goal in a certain period of time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that greater emotional connections with the characters in the story, and a stronger goal of achieving personal reward, resulted in better engagement with the economic concepts involved. This in turn led to increased understanding of those concepts (Huk & Ludwigs, 2009).

To be clear, the study also included cognitive as well as affective support in the form of a metacognitive element to the task involving prediction, application, and self-explanation. Huk and Ludwigs found that the combination of affective and cognitive support resulted in the best and most durable understanding of the concepts. What strikes me as particularly relevant for online classes is that there was nothing complicated about the way the researchers strengthened emotional connections in the experimental group: they simply told a better story.

We can create more interesting online assignments, perhaps using personas, crafting realistic stories, or adding an element of personal reward to increase motivation. None of these approaches require fancy technology, but they can improve intrinsic motivation, focus, and interest. Any approach that helps us contend for our online students’ attention and engagement is a tool worth having in our online teaching toolkit.

Take advantage of technology to create emotional connections to class material

In the above example, it would be relatively easy to embed photos of a storefront in a representative neighborhood as well as headshots and fabricated biographies of the characters involved in the start-up in your online course. In fact, it can be easier to share media that evokes an emotional response in online classes than in face-to-face classes, so put this affordance to work for you.

As Michelle Miller notes in her 2014 book, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology, “Emotionally arousing material is more memorable than nonemotional material… resources like YouTube, NBCLearn, and publishers’ media repositories give us new ways to show students—not just tell them—the emotionally powerful impacts of what they are learning” (p. 110). So take advantage of the ease of incorporating evocative images, video clips, narration and other audio tracks into your LMS. Doing so will bring class material to life, strengthen those all-important emotional connections, and help students stay engaged so they can persist, overcome distance-learning barriers, and succeed in our classes.

Create class activities that are fun and enjoyable.

Although some academics may balk at the idea of having fun in class, joy is an emotion, and when we’re enjoying what we’re doing, we’re more likely to be deeply engaged in that activity. Why not create online learning activities that are fun? When we ensure the activities are also directly related to our learning goals, we avoid turning online classes into ‘edutainment.’

In her recent article, “Fostering Fun: Engaging Students With Asynchronous Online Learning,” Lisa Forbes presents several strategies to capture and keep student interest and engagement by creating fun activities. Check it out for some tried-and-true tips and tricks to make online classes more engaging, and therefore to help students persist and succeed.

Increase student choice to tap into control and value as motivating factors

Finally, the more choice we can offer online students, the more they can exercise control over their learning and select options which are valuable to them personally, tasks which are relevant for their personal, academic, and career goals. The work of Reinhard Pekrun and others (2002) has shown that students are more engaged with their work when they see the value of it and when they have some say in what they choose to do. Wherever possible, offer choice in assignment topic, format, and more. Motivated students will experience increased success and persistence when you do.

Helping students connect socially and emotionally online will result in increased engagement, persistence, learning, and success. Indeed, it’s one of the best things we can do as online instructors to help students overcome the barriers that exist due to the distance inherent to online classes.

Join Flower Darby on Tuesday, October 6 at 1:00 PM Central for her live, online seminar, Increasing Student Engagement, Persistence, and Success Online Using Emotion Science.

Flower Darby is an instructional designer and the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. Her new book, The Spark of Online Learning: How Technology and Emotion Science Invigorate Every Class, is due out from West Virginia University Press in 2021.


Cavanagh, S. R. (2016) The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. Morganstown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Eyler, J. R. (2018) How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college teaching. Morganstown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Huk, T. & Ludwigs, S. (2009). Combining cognitive and affective support in order to promote learning. Learning and Instruction, 19(6), 495-505.

Miller, M. D. (2014) Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.