Emotional design in eLearning

When it comes to pedagogical theory, the relationship between emotion and learning is often neglected – or, at the very least, underestimated. However, with an increasing shift toward using eLearning resources in education, it may be useful to revisit this relationship and, in particular, to consider the role of emotions in the eLearning context.

For example, which emotions aid learning? And which ones impede it? Moreover, how can eLearning practitioners use design to stimulate desirable emotions and, ultimately, improve learning?

Emotion and learning

In recent years, studies have found that positive emotions serve to strengthen motivation, while negative emotions tend to hinder the learning process. Similarly, positive emotions appear to increase aspects like attention span, creativity, information-processing and problem-solving abilities.

Considering the potential benefits of stimulating positive emotion, it is surprising that this factor has not gained more attention in pedagogical fields. Fortunately, there are some valuable resources available for those who wish to change this.

Background theories

First, it is worth considering some important theories – mainly, hot cognition versus cold cognition theories. Cold cognition theory proposes that merely ‘adequate’ levels of selective attention and reasoning are required in order for learning to occur. Hot cognition approaches, on the other hand, acknowledge the full extent to which emotional conditions, or ‘affects’, influence the capacity of working memory. As such, the affective system allows learners to make rapid conscious and subconscious judgements, which are central to the learning process.

The role of emotion in learning is also recognised by the Cognitive-Affective Theory of Learning with Media (CATLM). This theory holds that educators can build motivation by influencing learners’ emotions positively, which consequently increases cognitive engagement.

Simultaneously, the challenge lies in eliciting emotions that improve cognitive processing without detracting from essential content. This relates to the coherence effect, which states that the addition of interesting but extraneous elements can impede learning – specifically, by increasing cognitive load.

As such, the best way to avoid increasing cognitive load, while encouraging positive emotional responses, is to rely on the design of elements.

Emotional design

Design is inherent to all eLearning resources, and plays a central role in how leaners respond to these resources. Emotional design, in particular, refers to the practice of redesigning the graphics of a lesson in order to increase the visual appeal of essential elements, while also guiding and sustaining attention.

In other words, this emotional design hypothesis holds that learners willingly increase the effort required to engage with learning material when lessons have been designed in a visually appealing manner. A possible explanation for this is the ‘joy of use’ concept, which suggests that resource design can result in positive emotional engagement, thereby increasing activation (i.e. the level of energy elicited in the learner).

Implementing emotional design in eLearning

So, how should these theories be implemented in practice? Firstly, eLearning designers need to consider the intrinsic features of a lesson. These often include pictures, videos, animations and interactive media. To avoid adapting these elements in a way that would increase cognitive load, eLearning practitioners should primarily focus on colour and graphic design.

Colours have been shown to influence emotions and behaviour. For example, cooler colours (e.g. blue, green and purple) evoke a sense of calm and reflection, while warmer colours (e.g. red, yellow and orange) have a stimulating effect, and can be used to draw learners’ attention toward specific elements.

In addition to colour, eLearning practitioners can also consider the benefits of using anthropomorphism, or personification. Here, elements that are central to the lesson are adapted to include relatable ‘human’ features. To evoke positive emotions and increase focus, illustrations with round shapes or characters with friendly human features can be added to the lesson.

Overall, the most effective implementation of emotional design would work collaboratively, by combining aspects like strategic colour use, anthropomorphic graphics, and even sound effects.


Considering the impact of emotion on learning, it is vital for educators to consider how they can elicit positive emotions in their learners. As highlighted throughout, aesthetically pleasing elements have wide-reaching pedagogical effects, such as stimulating learners’ curiosity and creativity, improving their decision-making skills, and increasing their motivation – thereby leading to better learning outcomes overall. Ideally, eLearning practitioners should use design elements in collaboration and, moreover, adapt intrinsic elements to avoid increasing cognitive load. Based on this, the value of emotional design principles in eLearning becomes clear.


Beege M., Schneider, S., Nebel, S. and Häβler, G. D. R. (2018), ‘Mood-affect congruency. Exploring the relation between learners’ mood and the affective charge of educational videos’. Computers & Education 123: 85–96.

Heidig, S., Müller, J. and Reichelt, M. (2015), ‘Emotional design in multimedia learning: Differentiation on relevant design features and their effects on emotions and learning’. Computers in Human Behavior 44: 81–95.

Lohr, L. (2007), Creating graphics for learning and performance: Lessons in visual literacy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Mayer, R. E. and Estrella, G. (2014), ‘Benefits of emotional design in multimedia instruction’. Learning and Instruction 33: 12–18.

Miller, C. (2011), ‘Aesthetics and e-assessment: the interplay of emotional design and learner performance’. Distance Education 32(3): 307–337.

Richardson, R. T., Drexler, T. L. and Delparte, D. M. (2014), ‘Color and Contrast in E-Learning Design: A Review of the Literature and Recommendations for Instructional Designers and Web Developers’.  MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 10(4): 657–670.

Schneider, S., Nebel, S. and Rey, G. D. (2016), ‘Decorative pictures and emotional design in multimedia learning’. Learning and Instruction 44: 65–73.

Sharot, T. and Phelps, E. A. (2004), ‘How arousal modulates memory: Disentangling the effects of attention and retention’. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 4(3): 294–306.

Um, E., Plass, J. L., Hayward, E. O. and Homer, B. D. (2012), ‘Emotional design in multimedia learning’. Journal of Educational Psychology 104(2): 485–498.

Uzun, A. M. and Yildirim, Z. (2018), ‘Exploring the effect of using different levels of emotional design features in multimedia science learning’. Computers & Education 119: 112–128.

Share this post:



This website uses cookies to improve your user experience. By using our website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our cookie policy. Learn More