Is Higher Education lacking its affective dimension?

March 31, 2015
Affective Domain March 2015

Affective Domain March 2015

Whilst the majority of writings and reflection concerning the use of taxonomies of educational objectives remain focused around the cognitive domain, typified by Bloom (1984), there is a growing attention being paid to the affective domain, particularly in professional education. Bloom’s now famous research project which resulted in Book 2 of the ‘Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: the affective domain’ led by Krathwohl, which has been much neglected, applied scantily (and often erroneously) to practice (Krathwohl, Bloom, & Masia, 1999).

Often described in terms of feelings or emotions I think it more useful to regard the affective as being a question of degree of acceptance or rejection of values, of the evolution of value structures. It is certainly true that having one’s values challenged can result in emotional disturbance (Mezirow, 2000) but I think there is a danger to using language that describes the domain in terms of emotions, not least because it scares off academics!

In my interpretation of the affective domain, illustrated above as a circular representation, I have retained Krathwohl’s five divisions but choose to use active verbs rather than the passive. So receiving becomes to receive, responding becomes to respond, valuing becomes to value, organization becomes to organize, and the final division originally entitled characterization becomes to internalize.

Original Atkinson Descriptor Sample Verbs
Receiving To Receive Ability to learn from others Sense, experience, concentrate, attend, perceive
Responding To Respond Ability to participate responsibly , respectively as appropriate to the context Perform, contribute, satisfy, cite
Valuing To Value Ability to associate personal and collective values with contextual experiences and express value judgements Justify, seek, respect, persuade
Organization To Organize Ability to structure, prioritize and reconcile personal and others’ value systems Clarify, reconcile, integrate
Characterization To Internalize Ability to articulate one’s own values and belief systems and operate consistently within them Conclude, internalize, resolve, embody

The reason I think it helpful to think about values rather than emotions is that clearly most of higher and professional education, is concerned by changing not just how much or what students know, or even how they know and apply that knowledge, but with how they ‘feel’ about knowing. At its simplest we seek to instil a love of learning and a passion for the subject. In professional education we also seek to instil our professional values into the learning process. Whilst it is clearly very difficult to evaluate the emotional impact that learning has on students there are ways of providing formative assessment to support affective developments.

For those in the Academy who are seeking to merely perpetuate their academic DNA in their students, the latters’ changes in values may not mean a great deal to them. For those of us who teach in order to make the next generation better than we are, better able to adapt to the ever-changing world that they face outside of the Academy, then having an interest in our students affective development is extremely important.

I have argued elsewhere that the relative weighting given in learning design to the domains depends largely on the subject and the context of learning. Clearly there will be foundational modules in a degree programme in which knowledge domain learning will be dominant. I would expect much that is done in an undergraduate degree to be concerned with the cognitive domain, clearly an ability to analyse, evaluate, synopsise and synthesise represent the higher-order skills we expect from graduates on graduation. I have also argued elsewhere that psychomotor skills are also worthy of being part of higher education. But it occurs to me that much of the learning opportunity offered in our current universities neglect and equally important set of skills.

Almost all employers agree that they want to attract applicants who share their values. These oft cited idealized values are in fact widely held; the ability to work well with others, to be an effective communicator, to be an effective listener, to work independently, to take the initiative. It seems unrealistic to expect students to necessarily acquire such skills without being guided through the learning process and taught to identify their own development. And it is fair to say that certainly in the United Kingdom sector a huge amount has been added to the curriculum, with employability strategies and planning personal development (PDP) initiatives, that students do not wont for opportunities.

But I maintain that we should ingrain in our students the values we expect them to demonstrate through the disciplines themselves, not bolt them on and relieve the academics from their repsonsability. To my mind it makes sense to write intended learning outcomes to encapsulate a range of affective outcomes and align learning and teaching activities to rehearse those skills with our students.

Why not include alongside an intellectual skills outcome (cognitive) that states “by the end of this module you will be able to critique at least three different perspectives on (whatever the subject is)” another outcome, this time an affective one that says “by the end of this module you will be able to reconcile two contrasting, and contentious, perspectives on (whatever the subject is)”. There is nothing touchy-feely about the second outcome but it focuses on the students value structures, supporting their ability to structure and reconcile personal value systems in contrast to those held by others. Critiquing sounds very higher education, but to be able ‘to reconcile’ is a much needed skill in the workplace.

Bloom, B. S. (1984). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives Book 1: Cognitive Domain (2nd edition). Addison Wesley Publishing Company.
Krathwohl, D. R., Bloom, B. S., & Masia, B. B. (1999). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives Book 2/Affective Domain (2nd edition). Longman Pub Group.
Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation : critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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