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Why We Put All the Feels Into Learning

Written by Rachel Koblic on Sep 29, 2020

Related content: Curriculum Development, Digital Education

Think about the last time you learned something—whatever it was: how to bake bread, how to sew a mask, how to use Zoom. For me, it was how to grow tomatoes in my tiny Brooklyn backyard.

When we think about learning, we generally think about how our brains collect, store, and recall new information. It’s easy for us to view learning as a purely cognitive process. In reality, learning is as much an emotional process as it is a “brainy” one. A learner’s feelings, attitudes, and beliefs have a significant impact on how they learn, with positive ones helping the process and negative ones hindering it. Feelings are especially important to attend to nowadays as turbulent events—a global pandemic, physical isolation, racial injustice—test our emotional bandwidth.

Reflect again on that new thing you learned. How did you feel about it? What motivated you to learn? How did it work out for you? I decided to grow tomatoes because, like many others during COVID-19, I wanted to spend some quality time outside. I felt relatively safe and happy in my backyard, tiny though it is, and I’ve kept a couple of houseplants alive for years now, so I felt confident that I could make the leap to outdoor plants. In this example, I had a lot of the ingredients key to success in learning: I was deeply motivated, I took control of my learning, and I believed that I could do it. As a result, I am proud to report that I have a bumper crop of tomatoes and more canned salsa than I know what to do with!

Feelings are paramount in the learning process. At 2U, we pay close attention to helping learners feel good, to fostering the right attitudes toward learning, and to empowering learners to believe in themselves and their ability to succeed. In other words, we help learners cultivate their emotional garden (see what I did there?).

The Feel of Learning

Thinking carefully about the emotional experience of learning forms a vital component of the work of 2U’s Learning Design & Development (LD&D) teams. That work is guided by our Learning Experience Framework (LXF), a collection of research-based principles about how people learn, drawn from the learning sciences. The LXF is structured around three learner-focused dimensions important to successful learning: Feel, Do, and Think.

The Feel dimension is among the most important in the LXF. Its principles drive students to show up, persevere through challenges, and engage with the sometimes difficult process of learning. That’s why Feel comes first. The first principle in the Feel family of three is intrinsic motivation, which tells us that students learn better when they are driven more by internal reasons than external rewards or consequences. In many ways, there is a dotted line connection from this principle to almost all of the others in the LXF—when a learner is motivated they will be more likely to engage in doing and thinking, and when we apply the other principles, we often increase intrinsic motivation. It’s that important.

The Importance of Intrinsic Motivation

While motivation is a subject complex enough to keep psychologists busy for generations to come, it can for practical purposes be split into two types: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is generated by rewards and punishments external to the person being motivated—money or power, for instance. In the case of a student, good grades might be an extrinsic motivator. Intrinsic motivation is fostered by motivators internal to the subject—for example, personal values or genuine interest. Students might be intrinsically motivated to learn by a deep commitment to their chosen profession.

Studies have shown that students who are more intrinsically motivated are more engaged. They show up, they try harder, and they stick around when things get tough.

Fostering Intrinsic Motivation

How do 2U’s LD&D teams design learning experiences that help students be intrinsically motivated? After 12 years of developing more than 2,500 courses for degree programs alone, we have honed a range of successful strategies.

One course that does an exemplary job of leveraging some of these strategies to foster intrinsic motivation is Professor Eric Chess’ Health and Well-being in the Workplace, designed and developed for the MBA program offered by the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. To bring this course to life online, Professor Chess worked closely with a team of 2U experts, as well as Jenn Light, Senior Instructional Designer for the Daniels College of Business. Professor Chess deliberately wanted to create a comfortable, low-stress learning experience for students that exemplified what he teaches with regards to workplace well-being—how meta!

Strategy #1: Emphasize the relevance and value of learning. As a learner, if you know and believe that certain knowledge or skills are going to benefit you later in a way that really matters to you, then you’re going to be more motivated to learn it. So, we encourage our partners to help students understand the value and relevance of what they are learning to their future careers in the field. In Health and Well-being in the Workplace, Professor Chess accomplishes this by bringing in a range of “voices from the field,” using recorded interviews with practicing professionals, to talk about how lessons on topics like workplace culture and wellness programs are relevant in their work.

Strategy #2: Challenge learners and provide feedback. Think back to a time you completed something challenging. Maybe it was finishing a strenuous hike or completing the Saturday crossword puzzle (or maybe it was baking that bread we talked about earlier!). Remember how satisfying it was to struggle through it and succeed? I know it sounds counterintuitive, but hard stuff is fun, and challenge is motivating. The same is true in education. We encourage our partners to challenge their students (to an appropriate degree)—and give them feedback to help them see how their effort is leading to real progress and improvement. In Health and Well-being in the Workplace, the challenge is: every workplace and every employee is different, so how you apply concepts of health and well-being to each specific situation will be different. Students get lots of practice throughout the course with thought-provoking asynchronous reflection questions and case studies, as well as short topic papers that are discussed collectively as a class in live sessions. Students have many opportunities for feedback before the final assignment. I want to stress here that feedback is critical. Learners who continually struggle without seeing evidence of progress are likely to quit—why even try, they reason, if their struggling doesn’t seem to be leading them to a desired outcome?

Strategy #3: Give students choice and flexibility. We also encourage our partners to give students choices and flexibility, whether this is in the topics they choose to focus on, the format of an assignment, or when, where, and how they complete their coursework. At 2U, our learning technology is purpose-built to promote flexibility and options, including features like captions, transcripts, and a mobile-ready interface. In Professor Chess’ course, the assignments are deliberately flexible and designed to be personally rewarding for the students. The objectives are clear—for example, one is to “create achievable and measurable goals to improve comprehensive personal well-being” for a personal well-being plan—but students have a lot of choice in terms of how they want to focus their plans.

Strategy #4: Build community. As one final example, building community and relationships can be very important to helping students feel supported and a true sense of belonging—feelings that can have a significantly positive impact on motivation. We share strategies with our partners to help students feel connected to their instructors and peers both asynchronously and synchronously. Our hallmark live sessions are the ideal environment for cultivating these connections. Again, Professor Chess’ live sessions are a master class in building community. He starts every class with a welcome and warm-up activity, he works with the students to collaboratively establish classroom community norms from day one, and he leaves plenty of space for students to talk about personal examples of concepts in action.

In the end, the careful attention to motivation and other principles of learning pays off—Health and Well-being in the Workplace is one of the courses rated highest by students in the program.

The Ultimate Learning Principle

You have probably guessed by now that motivation is my personal pet principle—it is critically important. As educators, we can create the most sophisticated, immersive learning experiences ever, but if a student feels bad and isn’t motivated, none of it matters. They won’t even show up, and we might as well have created nothing at all.

That is why we on the LD&D team are motivated to bake motivation into everything we design and do. Only when the student feels good about learning will the most transformative learning take place.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.