The power of positive framing in learning design

Research tells us that learning best occurs when we’re in a positive emotional state. ‘Framing’ is a powerful device from the field of positive psychology to keep a positive mindset in adverse situations. Read about one tool borrowed from design thinking that could help learners apply a positive frame throughout their learning journey, resulting in a better learning experience.

Hiked it and liked it (kind of)

The Tongiriro Crossing is a well-trodden day hike in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. Most famous for being the filming location of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings, this popular trail attracts thousands of tourists and locals each year, and last weekend I finally had the opportunity to visit it.

I’d been looking forward to his walk for quite some time, and this part of the country had been enjoying a lovely late summer with excellent hiking conditions. The week leading up to the hike had been clear sunny skies, and all t-shirts and shorts, but the one day we had set aside for the walk was unlucky, with strong winds forecast, and low thick cloud. After rising early and some discussion with the local shuttle operator, we were surprisingly given the OK to walk, and as we had travelled hours we decided to hike despite the less than ideal conditions. 

After weeks in lock-down, what we had envisioned as a wonderful day meandering along this Kiwi rite of passage, turned quickly into a stressful ordeal of Us vs Wild. The crossing reaches peaks of almost 1900m, and although it’s well-known for its impressive volcanic landscape and panoramic views, during our walk the fog was so thick, we couldn’t see anything past the next marker, let alone the famed Mt Doom. 

High winds picked up early on, so the trip along the exposed crater was spent with the hoods of our jackets pulled down low over our eyes. With dark clouds on the horizon, we had no time to stop for lunch. Our bellies rumbled as we hurried to get across before the impending rain set in. The hike uphill had kept us warm, but as soon as we began our descent, our soaking hands and feet turned numb from the pervasive mist that surrounded us. 

When we reached the end of the seven hour hike – cold, wet, hungry and tired, our shuttle driver cautiously asked us how our day had been, and a strange thing happened. We had just had seven hours of physiological stress, pushed to the limit of our comfort zone with moments of suffering, but in the backseat of the warm van, all four of us reported that we’d had a fantastic day – a truly great experience, and just one week later, I’ve added this objectively miserable walk to the list of top hikes of all time. 

You’re always free to tell yourself a new story about the past

Does this change in perspective sound familiar? How many times have you looked back on a difficult experience with a much more positive view? Studies show that the way we choose to frame a situation can be much more powerful than the experiences themselves. If we choose to frame a situation with a positive narrative we change our memories from bad to good. After our hike our minds told ourselves a new story of ‘triumph’ and ‘overcoming challenge’ over the real-time experiences of discomfort and suffering, and it became true.

In even better news, this powerful technique of positive framing is not only reserved for past memories. Research has shown that we don’t have to wait until we get to the future to reframe an event positively, we can also use it in the present to shape the experience over time, as it’s happening –  a strategy known as cognitive reappraisal. This framing has significant implications for learning design.

Promoting a positive state with learners

We know that emotion can play a huge part in learning by affecting our memory, attention and perception. The ‘AGES’ Model (Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing) tells us that negative emotions such as grief, stress and anger, can inhibit our ability to take in new information or focus our attention, but positive emotions have been shown to raise creativity levels, make us more insightful and encouraged to collaborate with peers – all useful factors when learning. 

So, if how we’re feeling affects how we learn, we should be designing learning experiences that help learners in framing challenges with a more positive orientation (in fact, one of our key LearnJam Learning Design Principles is to promote a positive emotional state). But this is easier said than done. Not everyone is automatically equipped with the emotional skills, or the sunny disposition needed to routinely turn every slightly adverse experience into a character-building one, but one suggestion to help learners self-regulate their emotions is to have learners construct and use a ‘persona’ as part of their learning toolkit.

Empathise with yourself 

User personas (or learner personas in learning products) are a commonly used tool in UX design and by LearnJam. Personas are a representation of the different users of a product, and include information such as behavior patterns, goals, skills and attitudes. Personas are used strategically throughout the design process to help make decisions on a product. 

Designers use personas to build empathy by identifying with, and gaining a similar perspective to the user. But who can see this perspective better than the learner themself? Could we help learners to reappraise their current learning challenges and struggles, by writing their own learner personas? 

Consider Harry. Harry is learning French. Before Harry undertakes a course of study, Harry could build the following learner persona for himself to strategically revisit throughout his learning journey. 

Harry has identified the key motivators and frustrations in his learning journey. He can see himself being successful in the future drinking wine and laughing with Fiona’s parents in Marseille … but he can also see he will learn and then forget the meaning of l’addition, and will have to practise saying L’eau s’il vous plait many times before becoming intelligible. 

With these two ideas in mind, Harry can use his learner persona as a tool to remind himself to shift his perception in real-time. By referring back to his persona, he could positively frame tedious vocabulary revision as an opportunity to improve his memory. Or recognise that the stress he’s experiencing in communicating means that yes, he’ll stumble but he’s about to learn a lesson from his mistakes. Harry is able to use his future ideal-self to frame the adversity faced through the learning journey as part of a wider positive and motivating experience. 

So Harry, what should Harry do now?

This technique of asking students to identify goals at the beginning of a learning cycle is not a new concept, but one of the unique aspects of using a learner persona, is that it can also encourage the learner to refer to themselves in the third person. Research by Ethan Kross suggests that using a third person narrative can amplify the benefits of self-talk, as it creates a sense of psychological distancing leading to tighter regulation of our emotional reactions. 

So instead of Harry saying “I’m experiencing that hard-hitting moment of not being able to remember a word, but I’m testing my memory next time my recall will be stronger” an even more powerful way would be to refer back to the persona as “Harry is experiencing that hard-hitting moment, but he will have better recall next time”. This framing technique has been shown to be an effective strategy for regulating emotional responses and increasing self-control in stressful situations, all of which are key learning design principles.

So next time you’re beginning a new learning journey with a new cohort of students (or yourself), making learning design decisions on a product, or are just about to begin a strenuous hike in bad weather conditions, consider using a learner persona as a framing tool to shape the challenges of learning in real-time into a positive narrative.

2 thoughts on “The power of positive framing in learning design”

  1. Hi Kate,
    I just came across this post during a random search for articles on using ‘Framing text’ in learning design. Not quite what I was looking for, but still so pertinent! Thank you for your insignts.


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