September 28th, 2010

Online Teaching Challenge: Creating an Emotional Connection to Learning, part 1


Learning research indicates that people learn better in the presence of some emotional connection—to the content or to other people. Creating this emotional connection is particularly challenging in the online classroom, where most communication is asynchronous and lacks many of the emotional cues of the face-to-face environment. Nevertheless, it is possible to do, with a learner-centered approach to teaching and a mastery of the technology that supports it, says Rick Van Sant, associate professor of education at Ferris State University.

“One of the things we know about learning is that learning with emotion is a far deeper experience than learning without emotion,” Van Sant says. Citing recent research (see reference below), Van Sant notes that a little bit of stress and the corresponding release of cortisol makes “neural connections grow thicker, stronger, faster.” However, too much cortisol degrades memory performance.

Creating an emotionally stimulating environment is something good face-to-face instructors do intuitively. “We live and thrive on the positive feedback from students. Students shape our behavior all the time. When technology is mediating between the learners and me, I lose the capacity to read my audience, engage my audience, and alter my style and cadence. I have no capacity on that kind of intuitive level [in the online classroom]. It all has to be intentional and cognitive,” Van Sant says.

Technology provides access to a vast array of content that has the potential to resonate emotionally with students. One site that Van Sant uses in his courses is Technology, Entertainment, Design (, which features top presenters talking on a wide range of topics.

“I can watch the world’s best presenters, speakers, and thinkers and bring them into my classroom. I can challenge my students with that information. I can ask questions. I can engage them in discussion with their own small community of learners about just what [the presentation] meant for them. The goal is to produce some emotional response, and probably 70 percent come back and say, ‘Wow, I’ve never known stuff like this existed,’ ‘That was the most amazing presentation,’ or ‘This person made the topic come so alive for me.’ It’s not foolproof. There are always students in the online environment who you just can’t get to. It doesn’t matter if they’re watching the best videos in the world or if I’m writing them directly or if the assignment is about reflection. Whatever it is, they’re guarding themselves and they’re guarding their emotional connection to learning.”

Zull, J. (2006). Key aspects of how the brain learns. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Learning, 110 (Summer), p. 3-9.

Excerpted from A Learner-Centered, Emotionally Engaging Approach to Online Learning, Online Classroom, June 2009.