Affective Learning: Activities to Promote Values Comprehension

by Tricia Tooman, Partner, Soulstice Training

“When adults learn anything under any circumstances, their emotions will be involved”
(Wlodkowski, 1985, p. 178)

Stimulating the affective dimension of learning is vital for adult education. In fact, some believe that adult education is affective learning, the purpose being to help adults draw meaning out of life experiences (Lindeman, 1961). Therefore, the adult educator’s understanding and integration of the affective domain in program development is paramount. The intent of this study is to define affective learning and examine the types of activities that promote attitude and values reassessment in adults.


What is Affective Learning?

Affective learning reaches the emotional and belief system aspects of those who facilitate and participate in it. As an area of study, affective learning has been defined both by the types of educational objectives sought in planning educational experiences, and through conceptual models portraying the range of impact possible.

Practitioners attempt to reach the affective domain when they write “objectives which emphasize a feeling tone, an emotion, or a degree of acceptance or rejection….expressed as interests, attitudes, appreciations, values, and emotional sets or biases” (Krathwohl, et al, 1964, p. 7). These types of objectives are typically oriented toward participants’ feelings, and they are often difficult to measure in quantifiable terms. However, many adult educators seem to possess an intuitive sense that these types of results are important; we simply want our students to ‘appreciate’ what they are learning, or to ‘feel good’ about themselves while in our classrooms. In fact, adult educators know through their own empirical practice that learning occurs more often, and to a greater degree, when participants are involved emotionally, and research in neuro-biology supports this connection (Davidson & Cacioppo 1992; Levy 1983). Without the emotive stimuli in the affective dimension, learners become bored, and may abdicate from sustained learning endeavors.

Recognizing that a definition based solely on non-measurable educational objectives resulted in a “meaningless” contribution to the field of adult learning, theorists have expanded the consideration of affective learning to include conceptual models of this approach. One of the first of these models is found in Krathwohl, et al (1964). This model proposes a complex, multi-dimensional continuum which works its way from a simple awareness of a value to a highly integrated internalization of value systems, or, in Kelman’s (1958) terms, from compliance to identification and internalization. Next to this general continuum, the model proposes a complimentary range of participants’ emotional involvement, progressing from neutrality through mild emotion to strong emotion. Finally, as the continuum climbs to higher levels, the participant transitions from lack of consciousness of the value, to conscious awareness, to an unconscious incorporation into one’s life and actions. Adult educators see this model in action when, during their teaching, they see the ‘light bulb’ illuminate over their previously apathetic learner’s head. When that occurs, he/she has moved a step further along the affective learning continuum.

[top of page]

A Process for Affective Learning

Transformational change, or perspective transformation, is the process of making meaning of one’s experience, inherently an affective endeavor. While not all learning transforms the individual, Mezirow suggests there is a process that all learners who do experience transformative change follow when they change how they perceive, know, believe, feel and act. Mezirow defines perspective transformation as “the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our presuppositions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world” (1990a, p. 14).

The process Mezirow proposes unfolds as follows: first there is a “disorienting dilemma.” This is an acute internal or external personal crisis. The trigger can be a huge life event or transition, but can also be a response to a seemingly minor interchange, a brief discussion or lecture. Second, a time of self-reflection ensues. The adult learner reflects on his/her personal beliefs, beliefs Mezirow entitles “meaning schemes.” Groups of meaning schemes make up the individual’s “meaning perspective.” In order for transformational change to occur, this time of reflection leads to “critical reflection.” The learner’s meaning perspective adjusts, incorporating new ideas, thoughts, feelings, values etc.

In transformative learning the most significant learning occurs in the communicative domain which ‘involves identifying problematic ideas, values, beliefs, and feelings, critically examining the assumptions upon which they are based, testing their justification through rational discourse and making decisions predicated upon the resulting consensus’ (Mezirow 1995, p. 58). This is seen as the central activity to be fostered by educators of adults (Taylor 1998, p. 47).

In this process, emotions and feelings play a significant role in learning and making meaning. Adult educators see this process and the emotional involvement required most often in the example of the argumentative or contradictory learner who appears to want to understand the new concepts being taught, but needs to process the information in a highly personal (and often verbal) way. Those who are successful in navigating this process are often the ones we practitioners think of as our ‘converts,’ the disbelievers who return to their offices and function as advocates for our training.

[top of page]

Conditions Required for Affective Learning

Mezirow’s (1990a) nod to the affective dimension of learning is found in his description of the ideal learning conditions. They are (a) an environment that promotes a sense of safety, openness, and trust (b) instructional methods that support a learner-centered approach, and (c) activities that encourage the exploration of alternative personal perspectives, problem-posing, and critical reflection. Other empirical studies (Taylor, 1998) further describe this environment from the educator’s perspective: (a) adult educators need to be trusting, empathetic, caring, authentic, sincere, and demonstrate a high degree of integrity; (b) an emphasis is placed on personal self-disclosure; (c) it is critical to discuss and work through emotions and feelings prior to engaging in critical reflection; (d) the importance of feedback and self-assessment; (e) solitude; and (f) self-dialogue.

Morgan (1987), Coffman (1989), and Sveinunggaard (1993) found that critical reflection can begin only once emotions have been validated and worked through. Feelings can also be the trigger for reflection (Gehrels 1984). Neuman (1996) found that transformative learning…in [a] more holistic critically reflective learning episodes, inclusive of affective and experiential elements, ‘participants developed significant capacity both to achieve a higher level of self-understanding and greater self-direction’ (p. 435)….Shurina-Egan (1985) found…that a ‘more complex learning occurred when an affective change occurred (p. 216)’ (Taylor 1998, pp. 34-35).

In other words, many factors are critical in both the environment and the educator’s approach and character.
Jacob’s research (1957) revealed that “affective behaviors develop when appropriate learning experiences are provided for students” (p. 20). Krathwohl, Bloom, and Masia found that affective learning requires significant time, energy, and commitment (p. 79) and a learner-centered teaching style. They suggest that as a learner “loops” (p. 80) their way toward the more complex internalization levels, real growth in affective terms is measured in years, not semesters. It requires a longitudinal approach. Malcolm Knowles’ andragogical model (1984) defines the teacher-learner and environmental factors that help promote affective learning. Learners must be invested and self-directed; and the teacher-learner interaction is qualitatively different than a pedagogical model where the teacher imparts knowledge, usually in lecture format, and the learner registers the information with thinking critically of the material. Freire refers to this style of teaching as “banking,” and believes it is unhelpful as a teaching method. A participatory, interactive style of teaching is central to learning in the affective domain. Cranton (1996) says, “There must be a democratic environment in which people respect and listen to each other. The educator is to be an equal participant in the shared inquiry, yet also responsible for facilitating and maintaining the process” (p. 28). Effective teaching practices include fostering group ownership, providing intense shared experiential activities, capitalizing on the interrelationship of critical reflection and affective learning, developing an awareness of personal and social contextual influences, and promoting value-laden content.

Wlodkowski (1985) dissected the affective responses of adult in the learning environment into four areas. First emotions influenced by the mood of the learner, second the influence of the instructor, third, the reactions influenced by the learning process and materials, and fourth, the learner’s emotional response to the learning group. The instructor must lay a foundation of trust, openness, and sharing in the classroom. Wlodkowski (1985) points to the importance of setting an emotional climate conducive to social relationships as a strategy to increase learning. “Feeling friendship in a group with the opportunity to share emotions and experiences is extremely nurturing and beneficial to people’s psychological health” (p. 182). Negative emotion, particularly of threat, fear, powerlessness, rejection, and incompetence “violate all the principles of adragogy” (p. 182) and can disrupt motivation for long-term learning. However, “without the willingness of human beings to endure pain and painful emotions, the world would not know its greatest accomplishments…therefore, the goal of instructors is not to make learning painless but to make learning worthy of the discomfort it may require” (p. 183).

Methodologies educators draw upon in order to successfully foster affective change and learning encourage actively the expression of emotion, and allow time for reaction to emotional topics. This can promote a clearer understanding, relieve tension, and allow for closure (Wlodkowski 1985). Help learners experience cognitive concepts on the physical and emotional level. This holistic approach means the facilitator should try and engage the senses in what is otherwise an abstract idea. For instance imagery is a powerful medium that engages the senses. Whenever appropriate draw the learning experience into the learner’s daily life, concerns, and values. Emphasize application individually and as a group (Wlodkowski, 1985).

While many adult educators might readily agree with these descriptions of the ideal learning environment, putting it into practice is often more a challenge of environmental logistics and organizational practice than one of belief in its importance. How many times each day do corporate trainers face the battle of providing meaningful experiences for employees despite the stark reality of sparse resources and a negative organizational climate? The conclusions from Taylor’s (1998) research seem to guide us to look within ourselves first, making certain that we display the qualities necessary for facilitating affective learning, and worry about the resources later.

One important means of performing this personal examination is to ask ourselves if we consciously and intentionally think of our participants’ complete systems of learning, including emotions and values, and act accordingly with responsibility. The Group for Collaborative Inquiry (1994) simplified the criteria for affective learning and the perspective required by the adult educator by reformulating the definition of the transformative learning process to include the whole person in learning. By this they mean an “awareness and use of all the functions we have available for knowing, including our cognitive, affective, somatic, intuitive, and spiritual dimensions” (p. 171, quoted in Taylor p. 36). There are processes and techniques for facilitating affective learning as mentioned above, but the most important factor appears to be a change in the adult educator’s perspective. This is good news for the corporate trainer: changing perspective requires no additional resources or change in organizational climate; it just requires reflecting on our experiences and opening ourselves to the changes that follow in our own belief systems about our participants.

[top of page]

Results of Affective Learning

While affective learning is in many ways a highly personal endeavor for each participant, the result is often a greater sense of belonging in relationships with others. As learners, we may reflect personally, but we validate our reflections socially, thereby creating lasting meaning. Cochrane (1981) demonstrated this principle in a study about the meaning derived from personal withdrawal experiences. He concluded ‘it is in and through the disclosure of one’s self to another than meaning develops and is enhanced’ (p. 114)” (Taylor, 1998, p. 36). As Taylor indicates, if Cochrane’s conclusions are true, the transformational learning process does not lead to autonomy, but rather a deeper sense of connectedness to one another and to society.

Numerous studies reinforce this conclusion and offer empirical support. Coffman found that Mezirow “does not adequately accommodate the possibility of the transformation of society based on the perspective transformation of individuals who are members of a group” (1991, p. 52, quoted in Taylor 1998, p. 23). “It is the transformation within a group context that gives individuals more courage to initiate social change within new communities” (Taylor, p. 23). Scott (1991) and Wilbur (1986) both report “instead of becoming more autonomous as Mezirow purports, the individual develops a greater interdependent relationship with and compassion for society” (Taylor 1998 p. 14). Perspective transformation does not lead to greater individuation, but definitions of self that are “inclusive of spirituality …(Cochrane 1981; Hunter 1980; Scott 1991a; Sveinunggaard 1993; Van Nostrand 1992), compassion for others (Courtenay, Merriam, and Reeves 1996, 1998; First and Way 1995; Gehrels 1984), and a new connectedness with others (Gehrels 1984; Laswell 1994; Weisberger 1995)” (Taylor p. 14).

Is affective learning, then, a higher level of team building? While the results of these two approaches appear to overlap, an important distinction must be made in the degree of change experienced by the participants. Affective learning leads to transformational change in the learner’s emotions and value system; team building leads to greater skill proficiency in communication and analysis of interaction styles. Both are important for corporate and academic departments, but affective learning reaches deeper to result in a sense of community rather than team. Is that not the underlying goal of most team building sessions?

[top of page]

Summary and Conclusions

This study reviews the theory and research in the field of affective learning, describing the principles involved, the processes and techniques for practicing it, and the results possible in learners. When emotions and relationships are brought into a classroom, the potential for transformative learning is greatly enhanced, but I do not believe we are prepared for the full range of potential outcomes. I suspect this is part of the reason most adult educators remain wary of holistic styles of educating. Taylor (1998) asks a couple of provocative questions, worthy of a separate issues paper: “by emphasizing other ways of knowing in our practice are we beginning to cross the line between education and therapy? How does an emphasis on relationships and other ways of knowing change the role of adult educator? How do we best develop safe and responsible relationships in the classroom not only between the teacher and students, but among the students as well?” (p. 39). These questions will be important for all theorists and practitioners to answer as we move forward with affective learning.

I concur with John Dirkx’s (1997) description of the learning process: “a process that takes place within the dynamic and paradoxical relationship of self and other.” True transformative change includes a fuller integration of the person’s mind, body, spirit, emotions, relationships, and socio-cultural context. We must begin dealing with the whole person in and out of the classroom if we want to succeed in our efforts to facilitate human growth and development.

[top of page]

Resources and Ideas for Affective Learning

Experiential learning activities are well suited for affective learning in that they potentially tie in the whole person—physically, cognitively, spiritually, and emotionally. Ideas include:

[top of page]



Action Learning Devices provide an environment for accelerated learning, a stage for viewing individual, group and organizational behaviors, and a versatile tool for enhancing employee and organizational development programs. Each device can produce a variety of learning environments reflecting group dynamics ranging from simple to complex. Each tool also provides an arena for action-based assessment of participants styles and capabilities and a practice field for developing new competencies. Clients use Action Learning Devices for developing leadership, coaching and systems thinking skills, for creating high performance teams and learning organizations, and many other applications. USA Toll Free #: 1.877.Interel (1.877.468.3735).

Pfeiffer & Company

Extensive resources of experiential learning activities organized by subject matter. For over 30 years Pfeiffer has been actively engaged in the publishing of insightful human resource development (HRD) materials. The organization has earned an international reputation as the leading source of practical resources that are immediately useful to today's consultants, trainers, facilitators, and managers in a variety of industries. All materials are designed by practicing professionals who are continually experimenting with new techniques and technologies. Thus, readers and users benefit for the fresh and thoughtful approach that underlies Pfeiffer's experientially based materials, books, workbooks, instruments, and other learning resources and programs. This broad range of products is designed to help human resource practitioners increase individual, group, and organizational effectiveness and provide a variety of training and intervention technologies, as well as background in the field. In 1999, Pfeiffer became a part of the John Wiley & Sons, Inc. family of companies.

Society for Effective Affective Learning (SEAL)

Additional studies which focus on the practice of transformative pedagogy: Bailey 1996; Cusack 1990; Dewane 1993; Gallagher 1997; Kaminsky 1997; Ludwig 1994; Matusicky 1982; Neuman 1996; Pierce 1986; Saavedra 1995, 1996; Vogelsang 1993.

[top of page]


Cranton, P. (1996). Types of group learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 71(3), 25-32.

Dirkx, J. M. (1997). Nurturing soul in adult education. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74(3), 79-88.

Knowles and Associates (1984). Andragogy in action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Krathwohl, D., Bloom B., and Masia, B. (1964). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals: Handbook II: Affective domain. New York: McKay.

Mezirow, J. (1990). Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: A guide to transformative and emancipatory education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

_______. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Taylor, E. W., (1997). Building upon the theoretical debate: A critical review of the empirical studies of Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. Adult Education Quarterly 48, 34-60.

_______. (1998). The theory and practice of transformative learning: a critical review. Columbus, Ohio: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Information series No. 374.

_______. (2000). Fostering Mezirow’s transformative learning theory in the adult education classroom: a critical review. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 14(2), 1-28.

Wlodkowski, R., (1985). Enhancing adult motivation to learn. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[top of page]