Using “Affective Teaching” Methods to Improve Students’ Motivation to Learn and Their Performance

girls learning how to read in classroom

Over the past decade, educators and researchers have identified student apathy and lack of motivation as serious challenges to maintaining students’ engagement in the academic process. This problem is prevalent at all levels: elementary, middle, and high school. Brophy (2004) suggests that students’ “apathy, not discouragement, is the ultimate motivational problem facing teachers” (p. 307). Apathy is a learned feeling. If students don’t feel engaged or are not provided with genuine reasons to be engaged within academic instruction, they are left with such motivation zapping rationales for doing academic tasks as, ”Do the work because I am telling you to and in the end you will be glad you did it.” Students have often bemoaned their school experiences: “Why are we learning this?”; and “When will I ever use this?” They often believe that what they are learning in school is not relevant in the context of their lives.

A promising research-based method for combating student apathy and improving classroom engagement utilizes “affective teaching.” Roorda and Koomen et al. (2011) conducted a meta-analysis on studies involving affective teaching, and the affective qualities of teacher-student relationships (TSRs) with student motivation, engagement, and academic performance. They suggest that there is a substantial relationship between student–centered teacher variables (encouragement, empathy, focusing on higher level thinking activities) and student outcomes (affective, social, behavioral, and academic) as well as a correlation between participation and positive student motivation. They found that all analyses showed a significant relationship between TSR variables and students’ engagement and academic performance.

In this current research article review, we examine a recent “affective teacher” study (Shechtman & Yaman, 2012) which focuses on the use of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) activities as a gateway to improving student motivation and engagement toward a literature class when compared to conventional instructional methods. While typically SEL curricula are taught as separate lessons, this study integrates the SEL lessons with the instruction of literature as a means of facilitating “affective teaching.” This is accomplished in the study by teaching the content at three levels:

  • One, the informative level which is composed of facts and knowledge;
  • Two, the conceptual level which is made up of higher level cognitive and abstract thinking that integrates facts and information into concepts and understanding; and
  • Three, the valuing level which is facilitated by “affective teaching” through the application of SEL activities which help students relate their learning to the context of their own social and emotional lives, thereby making the knowledge gained more meaningful.

The study investigated the impact of this program on 1,137 fifth and sixth graders from 12 schools, taught by 36 teachers in 36 classes. Half of the classes used affective teaching methods which integrated SEL within the academic instruction; the other half used conventional instructional methods. The researchers hypothesized that students in the affective teaching conditions would have more favorable behavioral and academic performance, motivation, classroom climate, and group cohesion than the control group. Additionally, it was hypothesized that climate, cohesion, and behavior will predict outcomes (content knowledge and motivation to learn) so that a more positive climate, higher cohesion, and more positive and less negative behavior will be related to gains in content knowledge and motivation to learn.

The results from the study supported the two hypotheses, and from the results the authors’ drew the following conclusions. First, students in the “affective teaching” condition realized more favorable outcomes. This was especially true for literature content knowledge, motivation to learn, classroom climate, and group cohesion. Also, observational data indicated that these students exhibited greater improvement in their behavioral performance and a reduction in disruptive behaviors. They concluded that the SEL lessons included within the affective teaching, which integrated instruction of students at the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects, allowed them to personalize literature lessons. In supporting the second hypothesis, the results strengthen the association between classroom climate and the learning process. An interesting finding was that improvements in positive behavior and a reduction in disruptive behaviors accounted for improvements in content knowledge, while group cohesion explained the variability in the motivation to learn. In conclusion, the authors propose that the integration of “affective teaching” with academic content and SEL lessons will improve the level of engagement of students and will result in better classroom climate, improved motivation to learn, and a more personalized instructional environment which will facilitate academic performance.



Shechtman, Z. and Yaman, M. (2012). SEL as a Component of a Literature Class to Improve Relationships, Behavior, Motivation, and Content Knowledge. American Educational Research Journal, 49 (3)546-567

Additional References

Brophy, J. E. (2004). Motivating students to learn. New York: McGraw-Hill

Roorda and Koomen et al. (2011). The Influence of Affective Teacher–Student Relationships on Students’ School Engagement and Achievement: A Meta-Analytic Approach. Review of Educational Research 81(4), 493–529


About the Author
Chris Huzinec

Chris Huzinec

Chris Huzinec is an educational researcher, evaluator, and consultant with over 25 years of practical experience in public education. He is currently the Director of Research at Review360 in the Clinical Assessment division of Pearson. Previously, Chris was employed by the Houston Independent School District’s Department of Research and Accountability for 15 years, first as a Research and Evaluation Specialist, and then as the Manager of the Program Evaluation and the Performance Analysis Bureaus. He has produced publications and evaluation reports in the areas of Bilingual Education, Early Childhood Education, classroom and student behavior management, and Special Education.