Business School Professor | Research Fellow | Corporate Speaker | Developer of High Potential Employees Hult International Business School
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Why learner ‘happiness’ is essential from the outset, especially during a pandemic

Studies have shown that learners with a positive outlook retain more information, so how can you ensure that your training session starts on an upbeat note?

22nd Oct 2020
Business School Professor | Research Fellow | Corporate Speaker | Developer of High Potential Employees Hult International Business School
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A smiling young female creative professional sits on a stool before a group of employees. She gestures as she speaks to a new employee training class.
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The summer of 2020 was the first time, as business professor, that my main concern was how to balance participants’ need for being challenged with what may be an even greater need for normalcy and positivity.

The emotional state of participants is a consideration that teachers and trainers should take seriously at this uncertain time, more than ever.

The issue of positivity is considerable, and crucial for anyone in the training or teaching space to consider, because research indicates both that positive emotions play a significant role in learning and retention, and that negative emotions during learning and development can be evoked in unexpected ways.

The role of emotions in retention and recall

A while ago, my colleagues and I ran an experiment designed to examine the impact of teaching style on participant learning and recall. A large cohort of master’s degree students, coming from over 30 different home countries, were split into two groups for a class covering two subjects. Group A was taught subject 1 in a dynamic, high-energy manner, with the instructor demonstrating passion for the subject and engaging students in an interactive simulation. Group A was then taught subject 2 in a low-energy manner, with the instructor simply presenting slides and exhibiting neutral body language.

In comparison, group B was taught the same two subjects in the same order, but the teaching styles were reversed: subject 1 was taught in the low-energy manner, and subject 2 was taught in the interactive, high-energy manner. Each group’s emotional state was assessed at the end of subject 1, then again at the end of subject 2. Two days later, students were given an unannounced test of each subject.

We expected to find that the high-energy style would be associated both with more positive emotions and with improved performance on the test. Thus, we expected that group A would score better on these measures for subject 1, and group B would score better on these measures for subject 2.

We were wrong. Instead, we found that group A scored significantly higher on positivity than group B, regardless of subject matter or teaching style. Moreover, group A’s test scores indicated significantly better learning and recall of both subjects than students in group B, to a high degree of statistical certainty. While our results align with those of many other studies showing that a positive emotional state enhances learning and recall, we were surprised by the resilience of students’ positive emotional state once it had been created, and the difficulty of reversing the less positive state, once that had been created.

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Positive emotions endure, while negative emotions are tough to reverse

Perhaps even more thought provoking is the question of whether or not an apparently insignificant change of expectations caused the more negative mood of group B.

For logistical reasons, group B was asked to wait 30 minutes later than expected in order to start their class. In contrast, group A began class at the advertised time. Both groups had been informed in advance that they were taking part in an experiment, so any uncertainty created by that condition should have been equal between them.

For group B, either the simple act of being made to wait 30 minutes, or the low-energy teaching style at the start of class, or a combination of these factors, created a more negative mood that then persisted for the full three hours of the class, repressed learning and recall in both subjects, and remained unaffected by a sudden increase in teaching energy halfway through the class.

How can we improve the positive emotions experienced by learners?

Of course in the current climate the positive benefits for learners of taking part in a training programme probably beats the disconnected and sometimes directionless existence that many people have experienced since March, due to Covid-19. Nonetheless, we can improve the positive emotions experienced by our participants if we carefully plan to do so.

Almost any course or classroom contains people who are anxious about how their performance compares to those around them, and anxieties may be exacerbated by the need to wear masks, or a sense of exclusion if participants restricted to online participation witness other participants who are physically together. Such negative emotions have the propensity to impair learning and retention.

This means that the emotional state of participants is a consideration that teachers and trainers should take seriously at this uncertain time, more than ever.

There are a few preparation steps you can take ahead of training delivery to improve positive emotions of learner:

1. Consider how you can maximise positive feelings during the first 30 to 60 minutes of the course.

When positive emotions are created at the outset, they tend to endure. Many trainers use the start of a course to draw attention to housekeeping rules, which is a dull way to begin. You can review the rules after the first break. Instead, plan to open with insights and exercises that will engage your audience.  

2. Design a brief pre-work exercise that will enable you to engage participants at the outset, actively bringing them into the session and into your team.

Examples include asking participants to submit in advance their answers to three questions, for example: one unique feature about you that you are willing to share; one main objective for the course; one piece of music you would bring with you to a desert island.

When you have such an array of information about your participants ahead of the course, you can plan to mention their names and some of their answers in your introduction. When participants hear their names mentioned aloud or see a chart in which their choice of music is displayed, they will feel included. Further, you can ask them to participate by explaining the reasons behind their answers (such as choice of music) to the group.

3. Become thoroughly acquainted with the technology that will facilitate online learning.

This means that you can avoid having to disadvantage one group of participants over another. For example, avoid having to tell participants ‘I’ll have to get to the online crowd later’, which can result in an online group perceiving themselves as lower priority.

The happier your participants feel, the more they are going to learn. Also, remember that it is the beginning of your course that has the most effect on establishing this positive emotional state.

Interested in this topic? Read Mr Spock, Pippi Longstocking and the fairytale of the self-directed learner.

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