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Course Design – For the Heart and the Head

You can have a beautifully designed course with the best content, but if your student isn’t engaged, they aren’t going to learn.


Start with the Heart

There is a universal truth that all course designers and educators know – you can have the most beautifully designed course, with the best content, and perfectly aligned outcomes, but if your student isn’t engaged, they aren’t going to learn. So how do you activate your students’ desire to learn?

Media Psychologist and Design Strategist Maxine Nwigwe, Psy.D. has the answer: appeal to your learners’ feelings.

“While performing well on cognitive tasks is an important component of learning, learning is a more holistic process. Emotions, social influence, and motivation play major roles in learner engagement.”

It’s a concept advertisers have been tapping into for as long as there has been advertising. There are clear emotional triggers that influence our engagement with a brand and decision-making around purchasing products. Advertisers know how to appeal to the heart when they build their campaigns, so how can we leverage that same idea to design more engaging courses? Let’s take a look.

 “Emotions, social influence, and motivation play major roles, in learner engagement.”


When you think of designing your course to appeal to the emotions, considering negative emotions may seem counter-intuitive. But as important as it is to trigger a positive feeling to create engagement around a course or concept, it’s vital to understand the negative emotional association students may have around your course topic or material. This is because people will struggle to learn subject matter that they have strong negative emotional associations with.

“For example, math anxiety looms large in popular (Western) culture and has been the topic of educational research. Studies have shown that math anxiety and math phobias are not tied to math subject matter, but rather to negative emotions tied to past performance on math-related tasks.”

Regardless of the origin of the negative association to a topic or past poor performance, the effect can create a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy when those negative feelings towards math, for example, lead students to math avoidance – opting out of math-heavy courses or topics and procrastinating on math work, which only serves to reinforce poor math performance.

“One solution is to create more positive associations to math by embedding math concepts and tasks in games, songs, and pictures or reinforce practice and iterative goal setting with things like special journals or worksheets that reflect the learners progress.”

Understanding what your students’ emotional triggers are to things like subject matter, teaching style, or assignment type can help you build in an antidote in your learning design.

“In my work, I encourage subject matter experts to use similar tactics with any subject that has negative associations. When learners start to build more positive associations with these types of content and activities, it increases their engagement in the overall learning.”

Social Influences

The gold standard for many course designers is to create a positive social space for their learners, whether that’s in the classroom or online discussion forums. Strong social support can do wonders for learner engagement and performance. But it’s important to remember that the social aspects that can impact learning happen well beyond the classroom. They are the trends, themes, and bias that affect all society, and they aren’t always positive.

“Ever wonder why there are such stark gender differences in STEM disciplines? Or why technology companies seem to be dominated by white men? These discrepancies might  be linked to certain phenomena which psychologists call Pygmalion effect and stereotype threat. Both of these concepts are based on the idea that people’s performance (both positive and negative) is tied to social perceptions of them (Pygmalion effect) or their social group (stereotype threat).”

For example, with stereotype threat, if the negative social bias or stereotype is that girls aren’t’ good at STEM, female students in this subject area can actually internalize this message causing them to underperform or not even really try to have an impact in these subjects. It’s a phenomenon that psychologists have been able to document through test performance.

The question for designers and educators is how to mitigate these influences?

“While some may want to counteract  social influence, it has been my experience that it can be used to increase learner engagement, by highlighting the accomplishments and talents of figures who break societal stereotypes. For instance, having a black scientist or a woman CEO present on a subject can increase learner engagement for those groups. Also, simply having content that frames the acquisition of key concepts and skills in a way that communicates clear expectations of how to do well can work wonders for learner engagement and thereby enhance learning.”


Probably one of the biggest drivers of a learner success in any learning endeavor is positive and sustained motivation to not just start but to continue to completion. If learners’ aren’t motivated right off the bat to engage with their lessons, there is little hope they will sustain their interest and effort.

Motivation to learn needs to be activated before learners will engage in a learning task, especially one that is complex and results in targeted behavioral change. But how do we know what can inspire a person to engage in a complex task? How can we design a learning environment that can address both the motivations for a working mother who needs a specific certification AND a recent college graduate curious about his career options?

“The good news is experts are beginning to explore ways to address this challenge in learner motivation. Some studies show that having learners engage in meaning-making in relation to the subject matter they are learning can be an important tool for motivation. Learning designers and subject matter experts can encourage this meaning-making by:

  • Employing examples that are relevant to learner experiences
  • Showing how subject matter information applies in specific relevant contexts
  • Designing activities that actively task learners to engage with applying subject matter knowledge in real-world contexts.

In order to ensure these steps work, you should borrow a concept from the Human- Centered Product design field, and get to know your user. If you want to find out what will motivate the majority of your student population, the best way to find out is to ask them. Student-led design workshops, surveys, faculty interviews, and focus groups are all ways you can hear from and better understand your learners to tap into the ideas and incentives that will motivate them.

Find the Connections and Correct

You can start designing learning that takes into account your learners’ feelings today. One technique is to add a few key questions to your design or review checklist:

  1.  What negative emotions might learners have and how is the learning experience creating positive associations?
  2.  What positive social influences are embedded?
  3.  What techniques are incorporated to activate learner motivation?

Building this into your process can make a dramatic impact on how you design and how willing learners are to learn.

As you start to work with these emotional elements, you’ll start to pinpoint challenges for your audience automatically and counteract them purposefully.

“True engagement happens when you design to appeal to what’s in the learners heart, not just what’s in their head.”

About The Teammate – Maxine Nwigwe, Psy.D.

I am a media psychologist who specializes in assessment and adult learning. I have almost 10 years of experience in higher education, mental health and wellness and workforce development and have had the opportunity to work across educational, corporate and non-profit settings. I believe that learning is a developmental process, and my approach to learning design is to create scaffolded learning experiences that cohesively incorporate experimentation, feedback and reflection toward an optimal desired state/outcome.

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