Affective experiences are an important part of informal science education

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Kevin Crowley and CAISE Admin. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Fun, excitement, pleasure, enjoyment, delight, laughter, wonder, joy are all emotional states that many informal science educators desire learners to associate with science learning. Yet in formal assessments, affective outcomes are often demoted to mere entertainment, rather than valued as central to meaningful learning experiences and productive participation in ISE.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Affect and free-choice learning

Boekaerts (1999) asserts that individuals who are able to follow their own learning intentions most of the time will report that their learning goals are more frequently associated with neutral or positive emotions. A strength of ISE settings is this free-choice nature of engagement, which both sets-up and results in positive emotional and social engagement.

Yet, ISE’s free-choice nature alone cannot guarantee positive emotional engagement. For example, a participant’s appraisal of a particular learning environment may indirectly impact the quality of their learning process: when individuals are aware their basic physical and psychological needs are not being met, they will not identify with the values and goals of that educational context (Deci & Ryan, 2000; McLean, 1993). They feel alienated, because cognitive processes are given over to conflict resolution, and this leads to negative affect (Boekaerts, 1999, p.537). Gauging emotion in this case can be considered an indicator of how conducive an environment is for learning.

Affect and repeat engagement

Emotional involvement is a characteristic of engagement and interest (Duschl, Schweingruber & Shouse, 2007, p. 194; Renninger, 2006), which in turn leads to learning and repeat engagement. Interest is considered to have both affective and cognitive components, where the emotional component is separate from perceptual and representational activities of cognition (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). Positive emotions are an integral part of situational interest, that initial, context dependent moment in which a participant experiences pleasure, which can then evolve through deepening phases of engagement (ibid). Psychological research has also shown that mild positive affect has also been shown to promote creative problem solving and facilitate recall of neutral and positive material (in Ashby, Isen, & Turken, 1999).

Both the affective and cognitive components of interest are considered to have biological foundations, where neuroscientific research shows activity in the approach circuits (in Hidi & Renninger, 2006), and brain-based “seeking behavior” is argued to be an emotional behavior common to all mammals (Panskeep, 2003). This seeking behavior drives people to search out more information and to re-engage over time with a given domain, deepening knowledge and feeling pleasure in the activity.

Emotion and behavioral change

Making an emotional impact is one common tactic educators utilize to encourage future behavioral change. This has been explicitly researched in the area of “conservation psychology” in which emotions are engaged in order to motivate people to act in more environmentally-friendly ways. Brookfield Zoo visitor responses to a survey showed that certain emotions, including love, connection, wonder, respect and amusement related to their interest in the animals feelings and personal desire to preserve the animals (Saunders, 2003; Vining, 2003).


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Vining, J. (2003). The connection to other animals and caring for nature. Human Ecology Review, 10(2) 87-99.