Creating a Supportive Online Learning Environment with Emotional Design


Tianhong Shi, Instructional Designer, Oregon State University Ecampus & Elisabeth McBrien Instructional Designer, Oregon State University Ecampus

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Emotions and Learning: Myths & Neuroscience

The last time you engaged in deep learning, you probably didn’t stop to ask yourself about the emotions you were experiencing at the time. However, that doesn’t mean that emotions weren’t playing a role in your engagement and learning. In fact, there is now evidence that emotions and cognition are “inextricably linked” (Fenton-O’Creevy, et al. 2011). Despite this knowledge, two common myths regarding emotions and learning prevail in education, especially in higher education:

  1. Students’ emotional needs are best met at home, not in the classroom setting.
  2. The teacher’s subject knowledge and instructional strategies are more important than their relationships with students (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2018).

Research shows that Japanese classrooms marked by humanistic orientation and teacher-student relationship-building lead to higher scores in international math and science tests compared to countries where the teacher-student relationship is not highly valued (Snowman, McCown, Biehler, 2008). Recent neuroscience discoveries indicate that emotions affect not only memory and attention, but also decision-making (Seo & Barrett, 2007; Immordino-Yang, 2015). Consequently, more and more educators in colleges and universities are recognizing the effects of emotions in learning and are making an effort to create supportive learning environments. Instructional designers like Connie Malamed  and Flower Darby have proposed emotional design strategies such as storytelling, showing you care for your students, acknowledging emotions, and designing for social interaction (Malamed, 2010; Darby, 2018).

Applying Emotional Design in Online Learning

Why should you consider using emotional design in online courses?

In face-to-face teaching, instructors can be physically present to students, using facial expressions and body language. In the online learning environment, when the instructor is seldom face to face with students, it is important to use emotional design to help create a welcoming, caring, and supportive learning environment.

In this blog, we share a few practices that instructional designers use in online courses at Oregon State University (OSU) Ecampus to create a learning environment that is conducive to learning success. 

Building a welcoming and trusting learning environment  

Most OSU online courses have a brief instructor introduction video to welcome students to the online learning space. If the course requires intensive team collaboration, having students introduce themselves thoroughly and getting to know each other in the beginning of team project becomes crucial. For example, Dr. Violetta Gerasymenko in OSU’s College of Business shares her introduction video as a model of student submission in Week 1 of her Introduction to Entrepreneurship course. She asks students to introduce themselves via both video and text, answering eight questions. (See Appendix for original questions). In addition, as instructional designers, we encourage online instructors to reply to each student’s self-introduction post to make everyone feel welcomed and valued. Furthermore, Ferrazzi (2012) pointed out that clear and regular communication is key to developing trust in virtual learning environments.

Creating a caring & supportive learning environment

Life crisis, lack of adequate time management skills, and content learning difficulties are among the top reasons why students fail classes (Fetzner, 2013). How can instructors help students relieve stress and react positively to challenges? Here are a few possibilities:

  1. Invite your students to share their concerns and questions with you. This could be done through private messages or weekly or intermittent reflections. Simply naming emotions is an important first step in reducing anxiety (David, 2016). For example, OSU public health instructor Dr. Erica Woekel invites her students to share aspects of their challenges with her privately. Surprisingly, a number of students share their personal challenges with her, including issues such as job loss, health issues, childcare and senior-care burdens.
  2. Provide resources. Many online students assume that they cannot get help from the university because they are not physically on campus. And, many instructors don’t know what to do when students report they are in crisis. In response, our team added an “Ecampus Reach Out for Success” section in our syllabus template. This provides information regarding emergency financial support grants, mental health resources, counseling services, and resources for academic success coaching.
  3. Provide time estimates of each learning task to help students manage study time.
  4. Ask students to schedule study time (used in Dr. Meta Landys’ OSU zoology online course) as a learning contract and adjust the plan accordingly as the weeks go on, to build up time management skills.
  5. Reach out to students who are underperforming in the class, and invite them to have one-on-one consultation with you or success coaching/advising staff. 

By embracing new evidence of the interconnectedness of emotions and learning, educators can enhance learning outcomes and support students. We would love to hear what practical ways instructors at other schools are doing to create a supportive online learning environment. Feel free to share with us at &


Darby, F. (2018). Harness the Power of Emotions to Help Your Students Learn. Faculty Focus. January 3rd, 2018. Retrieved from

David, Susan A. (2016). Emotional Agility : Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. New York, NY: Avery an Imprint of Penguin Random House.

Fenton‐O’Creevy, Mark, Emma Soane, Nigel Nicholson, and Paul Willman. “Thinking, Feeling and Deciding: The Influence of Emotions on the Decision Making and Performance of Traders.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 32.8 (2011): 1044-061.

Ferrazzi, K. (2012). How to Build Trust in a Virtual Workplace. Harvard Business Review. October 8, 2012.

Fetzner, M. (2013). What Do Unsuccessful Online Students Want Us to Know? Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(1), 13-27.

Harter, S. (2012). The construction of the self: Developmental and sociocultural foundations (2nd. ed.). The Guilford Press.

Immordino-Yang, M.H.(2015). Emotions, Learning, and the Brain : Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience. First ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Malamed, C. (2010). Design for Emotions (Part III). Retrieved from

Rimm-Kaufman, S., & Sandilos, L. (2013). Improving students’ relationships with teachers to provide essential supports for learning: Positive relationships can also help a student develop socially. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from

Seo, M, & Barrett, L.F. (2007). “Being emotional during decision making – good or bad? An empirical investigation.” Academy of Management Journal. Academy ofManagement 50.4 (2007): 923-940.

Snowman, J., McCown, R., & Biehler, R. (2008). Psychology Applied to Teaching. Wadsworth Publishing. P361. 

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2018). Neuromyths: Debunking False Ideas about the Brain. First ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton


Eight Questions to Prepare the Class for Intensive Teamwork in OSU BA 260 Introduction to Entrepreneurship, created by instructor Dr. Violetta Gerasymenko. 

  • Where (city, state or country) do you come from?
  • Where (city, state or country) are you currently located?
  • Have you taken business-related courses (BA 161, BA 162 or others) and, if so, which ones?
  • What is your (intended) Major?  
  • On a scale of 1 to 5, indicate whether you would like to become an entrepreneur (or if you have become one already):
  • (1) – Absolutely not; (2) – Not really; (3) – Neutral; (4) – Possibly yes; (5) – Definitely yes
    • What do you expect to learn in BA 260 course?
    • What are your passions or hobbies?
    • What would be your ideal or dream occupation? 

Tianhong Shi is an instructional designer at Oregon State University Ecampus, where she collaborates with instructors from College of Business, College of Engineering, and College of Science to design engaging online learning experiences. Tianhong had taught English at Zhejiang University for a few years before coming to the United States, received a M.S. in Instructional Technology from Utah State University and has been working as online instructional designer since 2006. Tianhong is passionate about applying learner-centered design, neuroscience-based learning design, Universal Design for Learning, and science-based teaching practices in online courses. You can connect with Tian on Twitter @tianhongshi or on LinkedIn at

Elisabeth McBrien is an instructional designer at Oregon State University Ecampus, where she collaborates with subject matter experts in the design of online courses, mainly in STEM disciplines. Before joining OSU Ecampus, she taught courses at Oregon State University, Rogue Community College, Southern Oregon University, and abroad. Having taught both domestically and internationally in a variety of contexts, Elisabeth brings a deep appreciation and enthusiasm for quality course design that meets both students’ and instructors’ needs.”




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