What do Emotions have to do with Learning?

happy game characters

Emotions? Aren’t they something to ignore during learning so we can focus on important things, such as meaning making and knowledge construction? If we look at current theories of learning with multimedia, we would indeed get the impression that emotions have no bearing on learning. And even when we ask practitioners, the most commonly cited connection between emotion and learning is test anxiety.

But wait – can we really turn off our emotions during learning?

As it turns out, emotions and cognition are intertwined on a neuro-physiological level that makes it unlikely that they could be separated on a functional level. Emotion and learning, we now realize, are inherently connected and deeply impact one another: Cognition elicits emotion, and emotion guides and modulates cognition. Interestingly, this is what allows us to adapt to the changes in our environment. It is also something progressive educators have known for centuries, we just seem to have forgotten with the dawn of the industrial revolution.

What is Emotional Design for Learning?

Taking advantage of this connection of emotion and cognition, we have begun exploring how the design of our digital learning environments can impact emotions. We use the term Emotional Design to describe the use of information design (visuals, sound), interaction design, and other methods, to induce emotions with the goal to facilitate learning. In fact, we were able to show that by redesigning learning materials simply by using round shapes and warm colors, we were able to induce positive emotions and enhance learning (Um, Plass, Hayward, & Homer, 2011).

How do I apply Emotional Design to my Projects?

The goal for emotional design is to impact learners’ emotion without changing the learning content itself. That means we use design features such as the shape of objects or their color: Round shapes and warm colors induce positive emotion, square shapes and neutral colors do not. In some of our most recent games, we use the game characters shown in the figures for the same purpose. Here we can use features such as their expression (sad, neutral, happy) or even their dimensionality (2D v. 3D).


The Cognitive Revolution in the 1950s has argued that learning is a cognitive process. Later, the Constructivist Revolution has introduced the notion that learning is a socio-cultural process. Is it time for the next revolution – the Emotional Revolution?

sad game charactersartwork by Keisha Milsom, NYU CREATE

Suggested reading about this topic

Plass, J.L. & Kaplan, U. (2015). Emotional Design in Digital Media for Learning. In S. Tettegah & M. Gartmeier, Emotions, Technology, Design, and Learning (pp. 131–162). New York: Elsevier.

Um, E., Plass, J. L., Hayward, E. O., & Homer, B. D. (2011). Emotional Design in Multimedia Learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(2), 485–498. doi:10.1037/a0026609

Plass, J.L., Heidig, S., Hayward, E.O., Homer, B.D., & Um, E.J. (2014). Emotional Design in Multimedia Learning: Effects of Shape and Color on Affect and Learning. Learning and Instruction, 29, 128–140. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2013.02.006

Gamification v. Game-based Learning v. Playful Learning

As somebody who works in the field of games and learning, I often get asked about gamification versus game-based learning. Is there a difference? Should there be one? To be sure, no broadly accepted definitions exist for either of these terms, but at the Games for Learning Institute at NYU and in my CREATE lab we believe gamification and games for learning represent two very distinct approaches to designing learning experiences. There are other views, of course, such as described by our friends at Filament Games.



We think of gamification as an attempt to apply specific game features to an existing learning environment in order to make it more motivating. Learning environment here could even mean a worksheet – often not the most interesting (or effective) way to learn. In order to get learners to engage in these activities anyway, gamification involves adding incentives such as stars, points, or rankings to encourage the learner to expend effort on the otherwise boring task. The learning task itself, however remains largely unchanged.


Game-based Learning

This is where Game-based learning comes into play. Going back to the example of the worksheet, when taking a game-based learning approach we ask whether worksheets are really the best way to learn about potentially interesting and certainly relevant topics such as the electoral college, the popular vote, estimating crowd sizes, or how wiretapping works, to name a few random ones that come to mind. In the games for learning approach, we go back to the drawing board of learning design and ask: How can we design game-based activities that are more interesting, meaningful, and, ultimately, more effective for learning than the existing task? In other words, we think about learning mechanics – the recurring activities in which learners engage while they play the game. We ground the design of these activities in discipline-specific applications of research from the Learning Sciences and related fields. The result is usually a new way of learning–and if we are really really lucky, learners actually agree that it is a good game. An example are our brain training games All you can E.T. and Gwakkamole, available for free on our DREAM platform. And as it turns out, the game mechanic itself, perhaps with the help of a narrative, is so interesting and engaging that we often don’t even use extrinsic rewards such as points or stars.


Playful Learning

Do we always have to design a game when we want to redesign a learning task? Through our work over the past decade we have come to believe that there is a highly interesting middle ground, which we describe as playful learning. When we take a playful learning approach, we may redesign the learning activity to make it more interesting and meaningful, but we use game features only in subtle ways, creating a playful learning experience rather than a full-blown game. An example can be seen in the StatsSims project, in which we used playful elements for the design of simulations for Intro to Statistics courses for high schools and colleges.

Gamification, Game-based Learning, and Playful Learning
Figure. Gamification, Game-based Learning, and Playful Learning: Three approaches to designing learning experiences


In summary, we use the terms gamification, game-based learning, and playful learning to describe three related yet distinct approaches to the design of learning experiences. Each has their place, but where gamification does not prioritize the redesign of the learning activity, game-based learning and playful learning are approaches that recognize that in many cases, we can do much better in designing activities for learning than worksheets.