Affective Learning

Icon squareby James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

When defining transformative learning, Jack Mezirow (1997) argues it is “an active process involving [the] thought, feelings, and disposition” of the learner (p. 10). By drawing attention to the more affective dimensions of teaching and learning, he gives authority to many of the things we hope our students will both experience and remember from our courses. We value caring about the history of art, for example, or feeling something in response to successfully solving a mathematical problem, or even committing to the pursuit of truth and the service of humanity. Whether or not they are explicitly stated in our syllabus, we have affective learning goals for our students both during and beyond the context of our teaching them. Mezirow (1997) suggests “we must assume responsibility for setting objectives that explicitly include [these goals] and recognize that this requires experiences designed to foster critical reflectivity and participation in dialogue” (p. 10). In order to do so, we must first define affective learning and consider its role in our respective disciplines and fields as well as in the lives of our students.

A 2015 forum in Communication Education invited scholars to reflect on affective learning, eliciting a range of perspectives designed to move from monologue to dialogue on the topic. Instructional communication scholars Katherine Thweatt and Jason Wrench offered the following summative definition from that dialogue: “Affective learning refers to an individual’s positive disposition toward a particular subject matter, which changes an individual’s operational framework and value system thus guiding decision making and behavioral choices in all aspects of life” (Thweatt & Wrench, 2015, p. 498). And consistent across forum contributors was the belief that affective learning is a transformative experience – meaning, it allows for “dynamic relationships between teachers, students, and a shared body of knowledge in a way that promotes student learning and personal growth” (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p. 576).

As a continuation of that dialogue, I invite you to reflect on your definition of affective learning and consider how it shapes your teaching. Can you imagine developing affective learning outcomes for your course? What would they be? Why are they important for student learning? How will you talk about them with students? If you include affective learning outcomes on your syllabus, how will you assess that students have achieved them? What type of learning activities and assignments will support affective learning in your course?

Use the space below to share and discuss your responses to these questions – or pose even more questions for us to consider. You can also schedule a teaching consultation with someone in the Reinert Center to discuss developing and supporting affective learning outcomes for your course. In the spirit of Mezirow, these practices help set our “line of action” towards transformation.


Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. In P. Cranton (Ed.), Transformative learning in action: Insights from practice, new directions for adult and continuing education (pp. 5-12). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Slavich, G. M., & Zimbardo, P.G. (2012). Transformational teaching: Theoretical underpinnings, basic principles, and core methods. Educational Psychology Review, 24, 569-608.

Thweatt, K. S., & Wrench, J.S. (2015). Affective learning: Evolving from values and planned behaviors to internalization and pervasive behavioral change. Communication Education, 64, 497-499.

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