affective engagement

Jargon Thursday!

No, it’s not a typo for effective. Affective means something like able to affect, or touch, the soul. Some use it as a synonym for emotional or attitudinal. An affective experience can change your mood or make you have a deep feeling about a topic.

Here’s what research shows us: Learners engage with topics in (at least) three different ways: behaviorally, cognitively, and, affectively.

  • Behavioral engagement characterizes what you are doing as you are learning. Reading, listening, taking notes – these are all parts of the behavioral dimension.
  • Cognitive engagement is thinking about what you’re learning – it’s the mental effort you’re undertaking.
  • Affective engagement is the emotional, motivational, attitudinal aspects of your learning experience.

Of the three, affective engagement has shown the most promise in making learning “sticky” – that is, making the knowledge acquired less likely to fade away.

How Do I Get Affective?

There are a lot of different ways, but here are three important ones for informal educators:


One of the most important factors in affective engagement is the relationship between the teacher and the learner student. Be positive, supportive, and interested in your learners and you’re more likely to create an affective learning environment.


A group of high school students walking up a hillside.
One of my groups, leading itself up a hillside. One of life’s constants is that a group hiking together will spread out as far as possible. Putting a student at the front makes them learn how to fix it!

Affective engagement increases with student choice and autonomy. That can be challenging in our informal environments – how do you let students choose what they learn and how they learn when you’ve got a one-hour program to deliver? But, as often as possible, you should hand the reins over to the students. When I worked as a field naturalist (see photo…), I would generally turn the leadership role over to a rotating group of students. What better leadership skill to learn than how to keep a hiking group together? (The counterintuitive trick is: The leader always goes the slowest of anyone.)


This is where informal educators usually have the advantage over classroom teachers. One great way to generate an affective experience is to present something really unusual! And our sites – aquariums, museums, grand pianos, forests, playing fields – are typically very far from the learners’ everyday experience. So feel no shame about showing your students the “coolest” part of your presentation first – that novelty is part of what will generate an affective experience and make the rest of your information really stick.

A pastel art rendering of many aquarium visitors marveling at sharks in an enormous tank.
Authentic experiences are more often *affective*.
Made by me with DALL-E
A pastel art rendering of many aquarium visitors marveling at sharks in an enormous tank.
Authentic experiences are more often *affective*.
Made by me with DALL-E


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