Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Towards a Working Theory of Learning: The Affective Context Model


(you can find a brief video overview of the Affective Context Model here.)
For about five years I taught psychology - including learning theory, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology and comparative psychology. One of my main reasons for leaving teaching was that I wanted to put what I knew into practice. That might seem odd, but it’s a great deal odder to find yourself in a classroom writing ‘Piaget believed learning should be exploratory’ onto a board while students obediently copy it down.

Of course there are many ways of enriching the classroom experience – but I was also experimenting with web technologies and believed that as virgin territories they offered explosive potential. The truth is that there is very little about the classroom that lends itself to learning – it is generally only the teacher’s enthusiasm that brings it to life – and that learning in this formal fashion is merely a convention, and one which runs counter to what little we know about learning. Certainly people learn a great deal at school – but mostly outside of formal environments.

I spent the next several years working with teams of developers in an ambitious attempt to apply learning theory and cognitive science to create a form of ‘super learning’ – a method which was demonstrably more effective than other forms of learning.
What I eventually discovered (and confirmed experimentally) was that it was perfectly possible to apply a great many theoretical approaches (such as learning styles, modes of representation, proximal development, meta-cognitive approaches) and build something that, ultimately, was no better than reading a book. In fact, the market was full of examples of really poor elearning content which nevertheless adhered to standard ‘instructional design’ principles.

What became perfectly clear was that context rather than the content determined learning efficiency: if the organisation to which you belonged could give you a compelling reason to study (such as a life-altering test) then it hardly mattered whether they gave you content at all – let alone what format it was in. People, it turns out, are resourceful learners.
I subsequently developed a deep suspicion of learning theory which on closer inspection (and with the help of people like Donald Clark) I now believe to be comprised largely of discredited musings or research artefacts with little bearing on what actually happens in everyday situations. Take Kolb’s learning cycle for example – complete tosh. It disturbed me to think of myself as a charlatan; as someone who might go through life with no real understanding of the process that lay at the heart of my profession – though I admit that this is a fairly peculiar condition.

But it’s easy to criticise. Over the last several years the question of learning has continued to trouble me, and I have tried to put together a working theory to explain those things that I have found to be true.

The Affective Context Model
I propose that learning is the process by which people attach emotional (or affective) sense to information. It might be said that learning is the process by which people attach significance to information, but this would obscure a central point, namely that the nature of human sense-making owes a great deal to mechanisms that have evolved under different evolutionary pressures to those we experience today. I’m calling this approach the ‘Affective Context Model’.

According to this theory the storage and subsequent processing of information depends on the broader intrinsic or extrinsic affective context. Humans ‘tag’ information in emotional terms; some provided principally by the learner, others by an external stimulus. To put it crudely: sometimes it really matters to people to learn, other times someone else makes it matter. When I have asked people what they remember from school – and I have asked this often – they will remember friends, girlfriends, school food, the terrible tedium and the teachers who inspired them with their enthusiasm or by taking them seriously. This model of learning addresses these characteristics, whilst most others ignore them. And I am not confusing the motivation to learn with learning itself, I am quite deliberately stating that the mechanisms are continuous – the motivational context is what is encoded along with the information – the ‘metadata’ which determines how we store and process that information. This approach is consistent with and subsumes other areas of research – such as context-dependent memory, distinctiveness and observational learning.

The headline theory is open to misinterpretation. We have a poor vocabulary for describing what I am getting at: when one talks about affective states or emotion people imagine that this is a plea to make all learning humorous, or that somehow I am invoking theories of emotional intelligence. This is not the case: there is great subtlety to our emotional responses; for example we each have networks of ‘mirror neurons’ which automatically mirror the emotional state of the people we observe so that the model’s emotional state may be encoded along with whatever it is that they are saying . The affective context for learning is also much broader than we often recognise: at school we may be trying to impress our teacher by learning, or impress our friends by not learning. Likewise, when we start a new job we want most of all not to make a poor impression with our colleagues and managers. In addition there are elements of the emotional context which are ‘hard-wired’ – no-one will forget the teacher who collapsed mid-lecture, and some students will remember the lecture on Alzheimer’s because they have first-hand experience of a relative with the disorder. The diagram below is a rough idea of how a model might start to build.

For too long learning has suffered from a computational paradigm which equates learning with ‘information-transfer’ and implies that what a teacher does is merely to relay data from one head to another (or from textbook to head). Why else would we persist in building online courses which are little more than powerpoint presentations removed from their presenters? Some time ago, Roger Schank pointed out that stories (or ‘scripts’) are an important vehicle for effective learning and information processing – but I feel he missed the bigger picture: stories are merely one way of attaching an emotional context to information. A good storyteller is also essential, and a story without pathos is hardly a story at all.

According to the ‘Affective Context Model’ an important distinction exists between ‘pull’-type and ‘push’-type learning (illustrated below).

1) Pull Type learning: In this type the affective context is provided by the learner; the learning already means something important to the learner. This type of learning is typical of informal learning, for example the learning that takes place when a person first starts a new job. In these circumstances it is usually important that the individual does not appear foolish to the new group and they will therefore use whatever means are available to adapt quickly in a ‘steep learning curve’ pattern. It is worth noting that under these circumstances the format of the content scarcely matters – in fact more sophisticated formats (such as interaction or multimedia) may obscure the core information. A learner who is desperate to figure something out (such as how to configure a wireless connection) will be quite content with short, textual information. This format accounts for most of the learning undertaken by users of Google, for example.

2) Push Type learning: is typical of formal learning situations. In this case the learner does not provide an immediate affective context themselves – in other words, they’re not especially interested in the information. In these circumstances it makes sense to provide this affective context by, for example, storytelling, relating the context to the learner’s experience, providing dramatic illustrations, conveying the content enthusiastically and in a way which involves the learner. In his book ‘Aquarium’ Vladimir Rezun (writing under the pseudonym Viktor Suvorov) describes a short film he was shown before agreeing to join Soviet Military Intelligence. In this film a traitorous Russian Colonel was burned alive. It is clear from what follows that this information not only stayed with him but continued to influence his behaviour for many years to come. Despite this, most ‘push’ learning remains ineffective, and retention of information follows Ebbinghaus’s familiar ‘forgetting curve’. This is because learning is usually presented to the learner at a time when the importance of it is not clear or imminent to the learner – it is ‘just in case’ rather than ‘just in time’ learning.

What I would like to say, when considering these two types of learning, is that if a learner can be persuaded of the significance of something then they will engage in pull-type learning and the need to deliver large amounts of information in formal contexts (such as classroom or online courses) largely disappears. A person who has seen someone fall whilst rock-climbing will probably prepare quite carefully for their own attempt. A student who fully understands the consequences of passing or failing an examination will probably take preparation more seriously (but only if there some outcome that is meaningful in their affective context). In practice, this means that organisational learning would do better to focus more on the affective context – the reasons why the target audience might care – than the informational content itself, especially in a world where information is freely available.

The model is also strongly supportive of ‘performance support’ approaches, where learning is provided at the point of need. In this way, when learning is essentially problem-based, learners learn only when they fail, and the affective context is therefore guaranteed (assuming they want to succeed). The theory would therefore predict that learners would learn better immediately after failing. Of course the main criticism of the Affective Context Theory of learning is that it is lacks experimental support. But like most good theories it is based on observations over a period of years and is able to generate hypotheses which can be tested. One could, for example, conduct an experiment in which two groups of learners listen to the same information in the form of a story – one of which is read in dull and emotionless fashion, the other in a lively and emphatic manner (the story being identical in other regards). Students could then be tested on recall. Equally, learning performance might be compared when there is no incentive (such as a test), when learners are amongst a group of strangers (and where test results are anonymous), and where learners are competing directly with friends.

Finally, the model above is not inconsistent with operant or classical conditioning. These theories are well-supported, and explain a wide variety of human and non-human learning. What they do not do is explain the mechanism for learning in the absence of immediate reinforcement or obvious association.
In summary, I am optimistic that this model has predictive power, explains some common features of learning in everyday contexts and can help professionals to identify what constitutes effective learning in a range of circumstances. It also underpins more specific pieces of work, such as the learning design toolkit previously posted on this blog, which explains in some detail how this approach to learning might be applied in practice. Please let me know what you think.


  1. Nick, you're onto something here. Have you read Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide? He makes a great case for the importance of the emotional brain in formulating decisions. Our emotional brains have had millions of years to develop their lightening-fast parallel processing (that's so natural we're not conscious of it.) In most cases, emotion trumps logic.


  2. Dan Walker1:45 AM

    Hi Nick,

    I'm going to apply this to the feedback data i'm evaluating at my next team meeting. It has given me the phraseology i need to understand/explain some of the trends!


  3. Time is precisely what worries me, Net - my time, and learners' time. Without an understanding of how learning works, time spent in classrooms and in completing online courses is time wasted. A really good instructor understands that something magical can take place during learning: it would be great to make that magic into a science.

  4. My many years of teaching experience support what you propose. The "magic" comes from a real connection between learner/learning experience and tutor that cannot be faked. I suspect that there are cultural differences in the form that this takes, many cultures expect the transfer of knowledge from "master" to "pupil" and this expectation will affect their feelings about the experience and consequently their learning.

  5. Very interesting piece and a serious contribution. From my perspective, I find it hard to separate the concept of emotion from that of motivation. Are you essentially saying that motivation is a vital prerequisite to learning and that this motivation can be both extrinsic and intrinsic?

  6. I agree that motivation is very important, and a term which covers central features of the affective context. Do any of us have a model of learning which explicitly addresses this? For sure behavioural models won't. Can it really be that we all tacitly recognise the significance of motivation, but don't have an explanatory theory?

    But there must be more to learning than motivation, since learning can occur in the absence of motivation - for example when we witness something striking, or when an instructor presents material in such a way as to 'bring it to life' for uninterested students. I think that learner motivation is clearly a central factor in 'pull-type' learning but that we need a model which explains this in relation to other things that we know to work: for example Roger Schank's storytelling research says nothing about motivation, and motivation does not account for distinctiveness effects.

    In practice we often start by asking 'are learners highly motivated to learn this material', since it affects the format we adopt. If they aren't, though, the question is bigger than just motivating them - we could simply offer them money, after all...

  7. Anonymous7:10 AM

    Lots of things come to mind here (will definitely be thinking about this for a while).

    The first one was a favorite Kathy Sierra quote "Our biggest goal: how to make just-in-case learning/content *feel* more like just-in-time."

    The next thing that I thought of re: context/motivation was this study:


    People (with exactly the same pay and working conditions) put significantly more effort into a task if it had a demonstrable outcome.

    Potentially, this is important in learning design because many of the things we ideally want learners to do (project-based learning, engaging in meaningful activities, investing significant effort in learning activities) are essentially wasted effort on their part - the class project gets thrown away, or the questions answered in a WBT get flushed when you clear your browser cache (we are dismantling the legos in front of them all the time).

    People aren't stupid - we want to motivate them to participate fully in our training activities, but they know that it's not real, and that, while it adds to their knowledge, the effort put in to that task is ultimately wasted in terms of real world accomplishment.

    Possibly that leads to better integration between learning and real-world tasks (not simulated tasks, but things people actually need to get done). After all, what would be more appealing/motivating: - a day long class on conducting performance appraisals with practice cases involving "Sue, the direct report"? Or a workshop where you can actually get your three most pressing performance appraisals done (and hopefully learn something in the process)?

    While possibly not practical in all circumstances, it's an interesting thing to consider...

  8. Working toward a deeper understanding of learner motivation is very important for designing instruction or for getting one's workers/students to do the work and be successful at it. But what of learning when there is no immediate or even connected extrinsic benefit? Could we learn about motivating people to learn if we learn more about why people learn or pursue learning something "just because"? For example I recently graduated from a master's degree program which was, at first, a means to an end. But I am now extremely passionate about the subject not to gain extrinsic reward but to simply be better at it for myself. What can we learn about context from the person who works/studies hard for the personal satisfaction of a job well done absent a test/raise/promotion etc.?

  9. I should clarify something here: motivation is one area of support for the model, but affective context is not another way of saying motivation. Motivation is part of the affective context. It's easy to see why: there are things you might not want to remember but can't get out of your head, equally I often want to remember people's names but can't. Most of the decisions about affective context are not directly under our conscious control.

    1. In the model diagram, we see pleasure, pain and enthusiasm. Should the diagram include fear? I have learnt so many things with and because of fear especially in the formative years. Many basic life skills!

    2. Precisely. This is why I have referred to Formal Learning as 'Anxiety-based learning' elsewhere: because much of it is based around the artificial affective context (fear) created by tests. And we remember frightening teachers. My worry is what this means for the long-term: people associate learning with anxiety and tests. In fact this is often what we see post-education, and it means that schools kill not only creativity, but learning.

    3. Yup! You are right. But what would you say about something like swimming or cycling - learning coming out of fear of falling or drowning? Or coming out of the feeling or want to master the art? Sorry I am asking some basic questions. Not to challenge anyone but to really understand myself.

    4. Our experience of the world is automatically and unconsciously processed in terms of its affective components - and these are subtle & complex, just as say 'vision' is subtle and complex. Asking if learning to swim is mainly a function of fear of drowning is a bit like asking if vision is more a function of red or blue. I can only say that there are many affective dimensions, and that they vary from individual to individual - this is why, for example you and I might hear the same lecture but what strikes us as important may be very different.

    5. Ah...well said and thanks a lot. So how do we apply Affective Context to formal or corporate learning effectively? How do we have the beauty of natural learning that we do on say google or twitter to a more formal corporate learning and yet give it a structure and measurement? Have you been able to do so? And if yes, have you put it on this blog somewhere? Would like to read up!

    6. Sure: the 'Learning Field Guide' on this blog is basically a handbook of learning approaches, based around Affective Context. We applied this approach on the BP induction programme (video on this blog, in the 'We have a wheel, we built a cart' post). In the 2 yrs since launch the site has had upwards of 120k visits & is the most successful online induction of which I am aware.

  10. Whenever I run a workshop / write a workbook, I have the delegates do a quick visualisation of what their world would feel like/ look like / sound like if they were expert in this skill.
    I get them to write it down in present tense and in the positive (for NLP reasons I am sure you are familiar with) - I then ask 'do you want this?' if they don't I ask them to rephrase until they do.
    I have been pitching this as helping them set filters to get what they need to achieve their goals and ignore the rest. This is another useful way of doing that. Thanks Nick.

  11. I think this model is fascinating. I've been very interested in the emotional capacity to create and endorse memories ever since I saw Dr Susan Greenfield's Dimbleby lecture 'The future could be too much fun' in 1999. Much of what she said back then resonates strongly now. I know absolutely that emotional motivation accounts for the most effective learning experiences and outcomes I have ever had. In fact I used to look for emotional connections with educators to give me the motivation to learn - it's like I needed someone to impress to make myself do the work of formal learning. Really interesting.

  12. I love how you have come to achieve this context model.We need more teachers/providers like you in our society!!