What we know: Students as learners: Learning is affected by feelings (the affective domain)

Students as learners

Learning is affected by feelings (the affective domain) 

What do we know?

Students have feelings, and feelings can affect learning (for good or ill) just as much as knowledge, ability, or effort.  Students are far more likely to learn if they are motivated (see section below) and whether students are motivated can be significantly affected by how they feel.  This relationship is neatly expounded in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which he first proposed in 1943.  The pinnacle of this hierarchy is self-actualisation (which is surely the aim of learning in higher education?) but Maslow argues that for the necessary motivation for this to take place the four more fundamental and basic needs in the hierarchy need to have been met, namely: physiological needs; safety needs; love and belonging; and esteem.

Implications for improving student learning

If the classroom is freezing cold, or hot and stuffy, or the student is lacking food or sleep it will affect their ability to learn.  But the importance of Maslow’s other stages may be slightly less obvious.  If a student feels insecure, unknown, and effectively ‘unloved’; if they are unclear about what is expected of them, if they are frightened by the assessment process, or of the possibility of being ‘shown-up’ and possibly humiliated in class; if they feel bored, isolated, or anxious, they are not likely to learn or perform well.

Anxious students “adopt over-cautious strategies, fall back on earlier and cruder ways of seeing the world, forget things and have trouble concentrating.  The emotional tone you set through your teaching, and the attention you pay to the emotional well-being of your students, are likely to be at least as important as the teaching and learning methods you adopt and the skills you develop.”

Further reading

Maslow, A (1954) Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper.

Rogers, C. (1969) Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become, Columbus, Ohio: Charles Merill.

Rogers, C. (1983) Freedom to Learn for the 80’s, Columbus, 2nd Rev Edition, Ohio: Charles Merill.

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats



About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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