Teach the Earth > Affective Domain > The Affective Domain in Science Education

Framework for the Affective Domain in Science Education

By Thomas Koballa
Department of Mathematics and Science Education, University of Georgia

See a PowerPoint presentation by this author, Affective Domain and Key Issues, presented at the 2007 Affective Domain workshop.


The affective domain (from the Latin affectus, meaning "feelings") includes a host of constructs, such as attitudes, values, beliefs, opinions, interests, and motivation.

Research in the affective domain is limited by

  • confusing definitions of affective constructs
  • underdeveloped assessment practices, including scale construction
  • affective variables being "add-ons" to investigations of cognitive learning

While the affective dimensions of science learning have long been recognized as important, they have received much less attention by researchers than have the cognitive dimensions. Reasons for this imbalance include the "archetypal image of science itself," where reason is separated from feeling, and the "long-standing cognitive tradition" of science education research (Alsop & Watts, 2003, p. 1044). A contemporary view is that the "affective dimension is not just a simple catalyst, but a necessary condition for learning to occur" (Perrier & Nsengiyumva, 2003, p. 1124). Attitude and motivation are indeed the most critically important constructs of the affective domain in science education.


  • How can the relationship between the affective domain and cognitive domain be further clarified for science teachers and science education researchers?
  • How might understandings about the nature of science (i.e., science is reflective of culture and the personalities of scientists) be used to promote attention to the affective domain in science teaching and science education research?
  • What are the potential contributions of affective constructs besides attitude and motivation to enhancing science teaching and learning?


Attitude is commonly defined as a predisposition to respond positively or negatively toward things, people, places, events, and ideas. After almost three decades of proliferation, attitude research in science education began to wane in the 1990s, in part because attitude researchers seemed to reach an empirical plateau. Many studies produced results that provided little direction for improving classroom practice or advancing research in the field. A second reason for the decline is that research paradigms in social psychology and educational psychology that had influenced research in science education shifted from a behavioral to a more cognitive orientation (Richardson, 1996). This shift in theoretical orientation saw attitude aligned with affect, or feeling, and belief with cognition. With the separation of attitude from cognition, and the emergence of belief as a construct thought to explain the actions of learners, attitudes became less important.

Research on students' science-related attitudes is again receiving increased attention. The disturbing decline in science class enrollments at the secondary level and post-secondary levels, particularly in Western countries, the disdain expressed by many students for school science, and the promise of new research methods [linked to physiological expression] have prompted renewed interest in attitude research (Osborne, Simon, & Collins, 1993).

  • Attitude has been defined in many ways and has often been used interchangeably with such terms as interest, value, motivation, and opinion.
  • Values are more complex and broader than attitudes and tend to be more enduring.
  • The relationship between belief, attitude and behavior is presented as a causal model in Ajzen and Fishbein's theories of reasoned action and planned behavior.
  • Theory-based strategies for attitude change can be addressed through manipulations of the variables in the question: Who (communicator) says what (message) to whom (audience) with what effect (attitude change)?
  • Attitudes and attitude change can be assessed through self-report scales, drawings, personal interview, photographs, personal diaries and physiological expression, including personal posture, gestures, and facial expressions.
  • Attitudinal components are present in many, if not most, instructional plans, whether or not they are stated explicitly (Miller, 2005)

Questions About Attitude

  • What science-related attitudes are worth changing?
  • What instructional models can be used to form and change attitudes?
  • What ethical concerns must be considered when engaging students in instruction intended to change attitudes?
  • What distinguishes attitude change from indoctrination (e.g., Greenwashing)?
  • How can an instructor guard against unwanted attitudinal learning outcomes?


Motivation is an internal state that arouses, directs, and sustains behavior. The study of motivation by science education researchers attempts to explain why students strive for particular goals when learning science, how intensively they strive, how long they strive, and what feeling and emotions characterize them in the process. As science education researchers respond to current national initiatives to foster students' science achievement, the emphasis placed on motivation has been increasing.

Attitudes influence motivation, which in turn influences learning and ultimately behavior. This sequence is relevant to investigating learning in many science contexts, although the relationships among these variables can be more complex than this basic sequence suggests. Historically, science education researchers have adopted four orientations to motivation when studying learning: behavioral, humanistic, cognitive, and social. A behavioral orientation to motivation focuses on concepts such as incentives and reinforcement. A humanistic orientation to motivation emphasizes students' capacity for personal growth, their freedom to choose their destiny, and their desire to achieve and excel. A cognitive orientation to motivation emphasizes students' goals, plans, expectations, and attributions. A social orientation to motivation emphasizes students' identities and their interpersonal relationships in the communities that exist inside and outside of school.

According to Brophy (1988), motivation to learn is "a student tendency to find academic activities meaningful and worthwhile and to try to derive the intended academic benefits from them" (pp. 205-206). The important motivational constructs being examined by researchers include intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, goal orientation, self-determination, self-efficacy, and assessment anxiety.

  • Motivation to do something for its own sake is mainly intrinsic, where as motivation to do it as a means to an end is extrinsic. Students often perform tasks for reasons that are both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated.
  • A distinction often is made between learning goals and performance goals (e.g., Cavallo, Rozman, & Potter, 2004). College students with learning goals focus on the challenge and mastery of a science task. Students with performance goals often are preoccupied with gaining social status, pleasing teachers, and avoiding "extra" work.
  • Self-determination is the ability to have choices and some degree of control in what we do and how we do it (Reeve, Hamm, & Nix, 2003). When college science students have the opportunity to help determine what their educational activities will be, they are more likely to benefit from them (Glynn & Koballa, 2005).
  • Bandura (1997) defined self-efficacy as "beliefs in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments" (p. 3). When science education researchers use the term, they refer to the confidence a student has about his or her ability to succeed in a field of science (Koballa & Glynn, in press).
  • All students experience anxiety from time to time, particularly in college science courses (Seymore, 1992). A moderate level of anxiety is good, in fact, in that it helps motivate learning (Cassady & Johnson, 2002).
  • The Science Motivation Questionnaire (SMQ) assesses six components of motivation: intrinsically motivated science learning, extrinsically motivated science learning, relevance of learning science to personal goals, responsibility (self-determination) for learning science, confidence (self-efficacy) in learning science, and anxiety about science assessment (Glynn & Koballa, 2006).

Questions about Motivation

  • Will stimulating interest and curiosity in science phenomenon heighten student motivation?
  • What instructional strategies can be used in science classes to encourage students to set and pursue goals for themselves (self-determinant learners)?
  • How can instruction be designed to help students see that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be mutually supportive?
  • How can instruction be designed to give students some degree of control over what they learn and how they learn it?
  • What kinds of assessment tasks (besides tests) can be used in science classes to reduce the anxiety about assessment?
This work is based on excerpts from:

Simpson, R. D., Koballa, T. R., Oliver, J. S., & Crawley, F. E. (1994). Research on the affective dimensions of science learning (p. 211-234). In D. Gabel (Ed.), Handbook of research on science teaching and learning . New York: Macmillan.

Glynn, S. M., & Koballa, T. R. (2006). Motivation to learn in college science (p. 25-32). In J. J.Mintzes & W. H. Leonard (Eds.), Handbook of college science teaching . Arlington, VA: NSTA Press. Access a pdf version of this chapter.

Koballa, T. R., & Glynn, S. M. (in press). Attitudinal and motivational constructs in science learning (Chapter 5). In S. K. Abell & N. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook for research in science education. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

To learn more, proceed to Selected Literature on the Affective Domain