Affective Variable Research Paper Starter

Affective Variable

(Research Starters)

The Affective Variable is a learning motivation aspect which is part of the affective domain. Affect refers to the emotions, attitudes, feelings and beliefs that condition behavior. In language learning, the affective variable refers to how emotions, attitudes, etc. impact learners' second language acquisition. A primary affective variable is motivation. Research has found that when students are motivated, they are more likely to be successful. Motivation has been conceptualized many ways, and several theories have been posited to explain what motivates students. Other affective factors have also been identified. There are many ways teachers can use their knowledge of the affective variable to help students in the classroom.

Keywords Affective Filter Hypothesis; Affective Variable; Attribution Theory; Autonomous Motivation; Community Language Learning; Expectations and Values-Related Theory; Extrinsic Motivation; Goal-Related Theory; Instrumental Orientations; Integrative Attitude; Intrinsic Motivation; Learning Strategies; Motivation; Second Language (L2); Self-Determination Theory

English as a Second Language: The Affective Variable


Language learning is a complex process that is influenced by multiple factors. One of the most important factors is the affective variable. Affect refers to the emotions, attitudes, feelings and beliefs that can condition behaviors (Arnold & Brown, 1999).

Affect and cognition are closely-integrated in the learning process. Some argue that affect precedes and motivates both cognition and behavior (Cuddy, Fiske & Glicke, 2007). That is, one's emotions, feelings and attitudes influence one's perceptions of an event; thereby determining what one thinks about and does before, during and after the event. Neurobiologists have shown that affect has an important impact on memory. Strong emotions can interfere with one's working memory, thereby interfering with the learning process. At the same time, affect can reshape long-term memory (Stevick, 1999).


Due to its importance in learning, much research has been done to uncover the exact nature of affect and how it can be used to promote achievement. One of the most researched affective factors is motivation. Studies have consistently shown that motivated students are likely to be more successful in learning a second language (Masgoret & Gardner, 2003). In general, this is because students in a classroom that stimulates positive emotions are likely to enjoy the learning experience and will gain the attitude that learning in the context is desirable. Thus, they will be motivated to try hard and gain greater achievement. On the other hand, students in an environment that stimulates negative emotions will dislike the experience and gain the attitude that learning is undesirable. They will lack motivation, put little effort into their work, and have lower achievement.

But what causes motivation? Why are some students more motivated than others? Are there different types of motivation?


Motivation has been conceptualized in various ways. Dörnyei (2003) provides a historical overview of motivation research in second language acquisition, and his timeline is generally followed here. He begins with the work of Lambert and Gardner (1972), who identified two types of attitudes that contribute to one's motivation to learn a second language (L2). These are integrative and instrumental:

• An integrative orientation refers to an individual's desire to associate with members of the culture who speak the target language. This theory states that learners who want to be more like the people who speak the target language are going to be more willing to adopt the behaviors and language style of the new culture. Therefore, they will quickly learn the language.

• Instrumental orientation refers to the practical reasons that an individual learns a language, such as to get a better job.

Dörnyei points out that Lambert and Gardner were working in the multicultural Canadian context composed of two distinct language communities comprised respectively of French and English speakers. In this context, they found integrativeness to be a "primary" (Dörnyei, 2003, p. 5) force for aiding or interfering with intercultural communication. However, not all L2 situations involve two communities coming into contact. In fact, many students learn a language as a foreign language in their own language environments (e.g., Chinese students learning English in China). Dörnyei highlights other researchers who suggest that the concept of integrativeness might not have to refer to an actual integration of an individual into a community, but could generally refer to an individual's developing self-concept. In this instance, the term would refer to an ideal-self with attributes of the L2 (Dörnyei & Csizer, 2002 as cited in Dörnyei, 2003).


While Lambert and Gardner worked from a social psychology perspective, subsequent advances in cognitive psychology greatly influenced motivation studies. One of the most important cognitive theories dealing with affect is Deci and Ryan's (1995) Self-determination Theory (SDT). SDT categorizes an individual's motivation according to whether and to what extent the individual freely chooses the goal to be accomplished. In this theory, there are two general types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

• Extrinsic motivation is that which is inspired by factors that exist outside of the individual such as rewards and punishments.

• Intrinsic motivation refers to an individual's internal desires and needs to do well and to accomplish one's goals.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation represent opposite poles along a continuum of self-determination. Several sub-types of motivation are identified along the continuum, particularly related to extrinsic motivating factors. In these subtypes, it is recognized that even if motivation is extrinsic, an individual can agree with the goal. The greater the degree of agreement and acceptance of the motivating factor, the greater self-determination the individual will feel. For instance, studying English in order to gain a promotion is considered an extrinsic motivation. If the individual is forced to apply for the promotion, he or she is not likely to perceive the move to study English as one that is freely chosen. However, if the individual believes that the promotion is going to benefit him or her and is one that is desirable, then studying English is likely to lead to a greater sense of freedom and self-determination (Noels, 2003).

Noels, Pelletier, Clément & Vallerand (2003) have been instrumental in applying SDT to L2 acquisition. In their research, they have found that when students perceive greater freedom of choice in the classroom and hold perceptions of themselves as competent, they are more likely to report more self-determined forms of motivation. Students who report higher levels of internalized motivation also report being more comfortable and persevering in their L2 learning. On the other hand, when students feel less freedom of choice and/or low levels of competence, they are less intrinsically motivated. These researchers suggest that this and similar research could mean that autonomy-supportive environments encourage intrinsic motivation and thus should result in higher levels of achievement.

However, some researchers have questioned the validity of SDT in cultural contexts where collectivism and conformity is valued over independence and individuality. In particular, some have posited that SDT may be less relevant to students from Asian cultures (Vansteenkiste, Zhou, Lens, & Soenens 2005). To test whether this is the case, a number of studies have been done on autonomous motivation, which is defined as a combination of intrinsic motivation and an internalized kind of extrinsic motivation in which the learner believes that the behavior needed to achieve a goal is personally valuable. Though more research is likely to be done on this question, in two studies investigating the relationship between autonomous motivation and Chinese students, both studies found that autonomous study motivation positively predicts adaptable learning attitudes, academic success and personal well-being. In contrast, controlled motivation, or motivation that is regulated by external factors or ones that are only partially-internalized, was associated with higher drop-out rates, maladaptive learning attitudes and ill-being. Moreover, parents who used autonomy supportive styles had children with more adaptive learning styles and higher well-being (Vansteenkiste, et al., 2005).

Goal-Related Theory

Goal-related Theory is an important cognitive theory stating that the kinds of goals...

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