Using affective learning to foster engagement and critical thinking
It takes time, patience and training, but a teaching approach that recognises the role that emotions play in learning can result in a more positive, effective and impactful student experience
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Students rarely mention how well designed their assignments were, or how effective the curriculum was, when asked to describe their ideal classes and teachers. Rather, they offer an engaging account of classes they enjoyed or the teachers who were exemplars or constructively pushed them to do better. In sum, they talk about the human-to-human connection, a concept commonly referred to as “affective learning”.
So, what is affective learning?
Affective learning is the process of acquiring knowledge, skills and attitudes through emotional engagement. It recognises that emotions play a pivotal role in shaping cognitive processes, memory retention and decision-making. In the context of higher education, affective learning involves creating an environment that fosters positive emotions, such as curiosity and enthusiasm, to enhance learning outcomes. Integrating affective elements into instructional methods, through simple things such as learning students’ names, will facilitate deeper understanding and meaningful retention of information. By acknowledging the interconnectedness of emotions and cognition, educators can tailor their approaches to promote a holistic and impactful learning experience, thereby making their teaching more effective.
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Traditionally, higher education has focused on cognitive aspects of learning, leaving affective learning aside. The importance of affect, emotions and motivations in the learning process cannot be overstated, as these elements are central to the internalisation of knowledge over time. A positive emotional state enhances motivation, making students more eager to participate and learn. Conversely, negative emotions, such as anxiety or fear, can reduce attention and information processing and so hinder the learning process.
Integrating affective learning into teaching
Here are additional practical examples of affective learning.
Affective learning can be integrated into teaching in several ways. Some of these will be discussed in depth below, and will allow educators to access the emotional states while creating an environment that supports students’ emotional well-being, which in turn is likely to result in higher levels of internalisation and positive outcomes, such as engagement and inclusivity and critical thinking.
Engagement and inclusivity
Academic engagement is often seen as an indicator of affective learning. The latter contributes to a positive and inclusive environment that motivates students to participate in collaborative projects and extracurricular activities and by making each student feel valued. Increased engagement leads to a more profound learning experience. Learning is not solely about acquiring knowledge; it’s about developing resilience and grit to overcome challenges. Moreover, affective learning acknowledges the significance of facing failures and setbacks as part of the growth process.
Teachers can offer reassurance to their students throughout the class, and communicate that making errors is not only permissible but an integral phase of the educational journey. A nurturing and emotionally secure learning environment, in which students feel comfortable sharing their emotions and apprehensions openly, is essential. Pedagogical activities, both within and outside the classroom, that support this include collaborative projects and team-building exercises. These activities not only enhance students’ interpersonal abilities and cooperative skills but also foster empathy through discussions about diverse viewpoints and experiences. Educators and administrators should ensure that courses remain accessible to students hailing from diverse academic backgrounds.
Fostering critical thinking
Affective learning plays a crucial role in nurturing critical-thinking abilities. Helping students express their emotions and opinions allows them to develop a deeper understanding of complex topics. Teachers can incorporate opportunities within formative and summative assessments for students to cultivate active listening and communication skills – for example, through in-class presentations and peer-to-peer Q&A sessions. Offering constructive feedback to students can help them to hone self-awareness and manage their emotions.
This guidance can encompass practices such as mindfulness, stress-management and time-management techniques. Additionally, students can address their emotional intelligence and its pertinence to their field of study, as well as its potential impact on their academic and professional trajectories, through writing reflective essays for their course modules.
Challenges in implementing affective learning
While affective learning offers numerous benefits, its implementation comes with challenges:
- Time constraints: Under pressure to cover extensive syllabi, educators may find it difficult to find time to address emotions and build meaningful connections with their students. Simple formative tasks can offer a solution. Teachers could, for example, use reflective exercises and papers as formative or summative assignments, which will not require more teaching time to complete. Affective learning should be introduced gradually, and it is vital to acknowledge the diverse needs and backgrounds of students. Gathering regular formative feedback from students can help teachers to assess the effectiveness of their initiatives and make improvements. To help teachers learn students’ names, they could ask their administration team to prepare name tags for students to wear in class. In short, teachers have to exercise patience.
- Faculty training: Affective learning requires educators to develop a deep understanding of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. Faculty training programmes are essential to equip teachers with the tools to create an emotionally supportive environment where learners feel trusted and can communicate openly without fear of judgement. A potential solution is to introduce affective learning into the institution’s fellowship and induction programmes.
- Assessment methods: Traditional assessment methods may not effectively measure the impact of affective learning on students’ academic performance. Developing new evaluation strategies that include emotional intelligence and personal growth is crucial to accurately gauge the effectiveness of this approach. Affective learning can be assessed through reflective assignments, such as our own experience with learning by teaching, journaling or group discussions. These can help students explore and process their emotions in a way that is related to the course material as well as to their learning experiences. Importantly, it is crucial to revise the assessment standards for gauging emotional learning to ensure their alignment with the capacity to assess emotional learning. This could involve instruments such the Griffith University affective learning scale (GUALS) as well as models centred around meaning and student responses.
Using emotions to support learning
While establishing affective learning in higher education curricula, teachers have to acknowledge that there is no one “right” way for teachers to connect with students as they are all different. Affective learning recognises the profound impact of emotions on the learning process. By nurturing positive emotional experiences, educators can improve student engagement, critical thinking and overall academic performance. While challenges exist in integrating this approach, the benefits it offers in terms of enhanced long-term learning outcomes as well as positive mental health make it a valuable pedagogical tool for empowering minds and cultivating success in higher education. Effectively embracing affective learning will allow educators to create a transformative learning experience that prepares students for academic success as well as lifelong personal and professional growth.
Jyoti Devi (Brinda) Mahadeo is assistant professor in the Faculty of Management, Law and Social Sciences at the University of Bradford, UK.
Rabindra Nepal is associate professor in the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Wollongong, Australia.
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