Affect and Cognition: We Are Not Spocks

Laura Border
Director, Graduate Teacher Program
University of Colorado at Boulder

The affective tenor of the classroom literally contributes to or detracts from student learning. Nell Noddings (1995) has underlined the need for caring teachers. Barbara McCombs and Jo Sue Whisler (1997) have studied student motivation for 20 years and have tied it directly to affect.

Charles Handy described the personality of the perfect mentor as a person who is able to focus on the needs of another. Carl Rogers showed that personal growth is tied to the evident support of a caring person. Gazda, et al., developed Human Relations Training in the 1980s to teach "helpers" (whom they define as faculty, not just counselors) how to interact effectively with students regardless of their emotional state in order to guide them in a positive learning direction. Benjamin Bloom developed a taxonomy of the affective domain, which attempts to describe how individuals' affective reactions are the basis for cognitive shifts and notes also that cognition or thoughts can trigger affective reactions.

Howard Gardner has identified individuals who seem to have strong interpersonal skills and others who do not. Robert Diamond's new publication on designing courses and assessing curricula introduces the importance of the affective component of classroom interactions. Daniel Goleman (1996) dared to state that students' EQs (emotional quotient) are as important as their IQs. Even the United States Congress has used specialists in affective behavior and effective communication to improve governmental functioning.

Gamson and Chickering's Inventory of Effective Faculty Behaviors ("The Seven Principles of Good Practice") lists the seven habits of highly effective faculty, tying effectiveness directly to the affective or interpersonal aspects of the teaching-learning relationship.

"Not Something Else To Worry About!"

This broad sweeping attention to affect, interaction, and faculty-student relationships might seem peculiar to someone who has not worked in the last ten years with a frustrated postsecondary teacher on his or her teaching. Faculty in the trenches would resonate to these issues--if they had the time.

But, they don't.

They don't have time because they are bombarded daily by directives from all sides. Integrate technology! Change the curriculum! Recruit and retain students! Evaluate your administrators! Use collaborative learning! Stop lecturing! Assess student learning! Design departmental assessment instruments! Publish only in top notch journals!

And the most difficult directive of all--teach civility!

If I have riled you to the point where you want to just say no to all of it, I've gone too far.

That isn't my goal. My goal is to affirm persuasively that affect and

Affect is not a troublesome extra. Affect parallels intelligence in learning.

interpersonal relationships either allow and support the mastery of content or entirely derail the learning process. Next to knowing your subject well, understanding affect is a "prime directive" of effective teaching.

If students feel alienated, they shut down or they argue or drop out or fail or write nasty evaluations of their faculty, and, most significantly, they do not learn. Viewing students as recalcitrant, ignorant, rude, uninterested, or underprepared sends faculty into the classroom with a parti pris that prevents them from establishing a productive learning environment.

Affect is not a troublesome extra to be dealt with. Affect parallels intelligence in learning. To imagine learning as separated from affect is to traffic in dangerous fantasy.

We are accustomed to this fantasy, however, and we are more comfortable accepting affect's importance only when it manifests itself in excess: when students get angry, for example. In those situations, if the individuals on either side of the desk do not know what to do when emotions intensify, then tempers flair, and "buttons get pushed." When that happens, the basic reactions of fight or flight erase any possibility for learning.

It is important for faculty to understand that breakdowns in classroom communication can be addressed. Goleman describes various programs designed to teach students how to resolve conflict, deal with emotions, and argue effectively. He assumes that all teachers know how to do so. In truth, faculty at the postsecondary level may need some assistance in learning how to interact with student questions, affective reactions, opinions, and direct confrontations. Rather than feeling held hostage by uncivil students, postsecondary faculty can learn how minor shifts in their own approach can contribute to student learning and satisfaction.

Kolb: With Feeling

In my work with faculty and in my own learning, I've found [David] Kolb's Learning Style Inventory (now familiar to most everyone in higher education) very useful in explaining how common teacher behaviors may cause negative student affect, interfere with student motivation, and stymie learning. The variety in learning or processing styles, after all, represents different ways of understanding the world, different perspectives, not just different cognitive modes. And thus, an affective, usually value-laden dimension shadows each shift in processing preference. Obviously, then, different approaches please and thus motivate some students while they displease and aggravate others.


Students who fall into the concrete experience-reflective observer quadrant resent faculty who are openly authoritarian. They are uncomfortable with faculty who focus on immediate problem solving or hands-on experience. They recoil from too many probing questions and pressure to "just call out" the answer. They are irritated with faculty who pay more attention to the picayune than the important.

Faculty who leave them no space for personal discovery or reflection drive them nuts. And, faculty who offer little or no feedback are viewed as uninterested and unsupportive.

On the other hand, faculty who express their passion for the subject, attend to students' personal growth, encourage students to follow their interests, and invite students to meet important people and to participate in discussions with them are admired. Faculty who are not afraid to praise, who care about the students' futures and personal success, are appreciated.


Students who fall into the reflective observer-abstract conceptualizer quadrant find teachers who fail to provide structure irritating. In fact, they prefer authoritarian teachers as long as they think the teacher is an expert in the field. They dislike teachers who discuss emotions and feelings because they prefer a rational, logical approach to learning. They want to know the facts and learn the right answer or method; thus, they view teachers who prefer an open-ended approach as incompetent and wishy-washy. Teachers who expect students to learn through trial and error drive them nuts. Faculty who publicly correct student errors make them resentful. Faculty who ask them questions and expect them to create their own hypotheses are seen as lazy and not doing their own job. Faculty who expect them to like collaborative learning groups and to perform in front of the class will meet with articulate and angry resistance.

These students are happy when faculty are lecturing, explaining the facts, and discussing information that has been accepted by experts in the field.

They feel like they are learning when their instructor points out ways to improve their work and explains how to correct errors. They want to know ahead of time what will help them avoid mistakes.


Students who fall into the abstract conceptualization-active experimentation quadrant get furious at faculty who silence their questions and make them wait to pose a question. Faculty who fail to provide problems for them to work on are viewed as unrealistic. These students learn by asking questions and critiquing or questioning information that is presented to them. Faculty members who can not handle the heat are scorned. Convergers are the quintessential devil's advocates and take pleasure in this role. They do not like surprises, preferring to have their faculty provide them with carefully thought out problems and the guidance to solve those problems. They do not like to work in a group and if assigned to a group, will question their teacher's thought processes and will immediately try to divide the task so that each group member is responsible for one clearly circumscribed part.

Faculty who answer questions cheerfully without feeling that their authority is being questioned are respected and admired. Faculty who expect students to believe what they have just been told without

An affective dimension shadows each shift in processing preference.

questioning it will be ridiculed. They enjoy faculty whose sense of humor falls on the slapstick side and faculty who are relaxed enough to become their friends.


Students in the active experimentation-concrete experience quadrant expect their faculty to set goals and guidelines for the completion of a project or product. Faculty who expect discussion with no visible end product drive them up the wall. They expect faculty to provide hands-on experience to complete the project and coaching to identify mistakes that can be corrected or redone. They want the class and the product to be useful.

Faculty who like theory, who quote from experts, and who talk about things rather than doing things, irritate them and fail to earn their respect.

Faculty who make no allowance for mistakes or practice are dismissed as dreamers (or tyrants). Faculty who allow students to redo and improve on assignments or tests are respected. Faculty who provide them with one-on-one attention, yet give them the freedom to explore are appreciated. Faculty who put them in discussion groups will find that they are impatient with the group structure; they prefer to get to work on their own project rather than wasting time talking. Faculty who want them to sit still and listen to a lecture, an explanation, a theory will be avoided or openly criticized for not knowing how to do things.

Compass Needed

A new faculty member who does not understand the four basic processing styles will find him- or herself frustrated and irritated by the students who do not fall into his or her own quadrant. On the other hand, a professor who understands all four, especially his or her opposite, is able to approach the material from different entry points, use varied techniques, and assure all students that time for discussion, theory, questions and practice will be built into the course.

When students' buttons are not being pushed by conflicting processing styles, they are easier to work with. When faculty know enough about teaching and learning to understand that the student who always listens but never talks in class is not stupid, the student who blushes and refuses when asked to volunteer is not inhibited, the student who always asks questions is not being rude, and the student who impatiently taps her foot is not hyperactive, they will relax and accept students' diverse learning styles. These students are simply trying their best to learn using their cognitive, affective, and psycho-motor strengths to the best of their ability.

Laura Border
Director Graduate Teacher Program
University of Colorado -Boulder
Norlin S461, C. B. 362
Boulder, CO 80309-0362

Telephone: (303) 492-4902
Fax: (303) 492-4904

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Affect and Cognition
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Edited by: on Wednesday, 31-Mar-1999 10:00:17 EST