Affective Factors in Learner Autonomy

Phillip A. Bennett, Kanda University of International Studies

Bennett, P. A. (2018). Affective factors in learner autonomy. Relay Journal, 1(1), 128-132.

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“The myth that emotions are only a minor part of learning is one of the most amazing confabulations of all time”

–––Rebecca L. Oxford, 2013 p. 67

Learning a second language can invoke feelings of enjoyment, stress, accomplishment, failure, excitement, and discouragement. These affective factors have an interdependent relationship with cognition (Damasio, 2000) which can enhance or impede language learning, however, the affectional aspect of the learning process is a largely neglected dimension of language teaching and learning theories (Damasio, 2000; MacIntyre, 2002; Oxford, 2013). Ryan and Deci (2017, p. 351) state that, “Substantial evidence shows that autonomy-supportive versus controlling teaching strategies foster more autonomous forms of motivation in students and the higher quality engagement, performance, and the positive experience associated with it.” They go on to say that the positive effects of autonomy-supportive strategies permeate through all age groups and cultures. Therefore, if language teachers aim to foster an environment where learners have the capacity and desire to take control of their learning, i.e., promote learner autonomy, (Benson, 2011), teachers must not only be aware of the relationship between affect and language learning but also take action by implementing effective affective strategies in our pedagogical practices. This can be accomplished by assisting learners to be aware of their emotions and the meta-affective and affective strategies they can implement in order to better manage them (Oxford, 2011). Such strategies are paying attention to affect, planning for affect, monitoring affect, etc. (Oxford, 2011). Another facet educators must be aware of in the classroom is how autonomy can be socially mediated (Murray, 2014), e.g., mentoring, cooperation, and peer-assessment. Further, being aware and taking appropriate actions also requires educators to exercise their emotional intelligence, which Salovey and Mayer (1990, p. 189) define as “a type of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” Thus teachers must play an important role by being partners as well as independent learner-practitioners when interacting with students (O’Leary, 2014).

Learner autonomy (LA) has answered many questions about teaching and learning and in turn, gave me an entirely new perspective on how I view myself as a teacher and how I view students as a class and individually. Admittedly, since I find each concept in the field of autonomy intriguing, it’s difficult to just write about one. Also, the way each of the concepts intersect, it’s very easy to start writing about one concept and end with another. That being said, since I’ve always felt that students’ emotions played a role in the classroom, whether it be towards the lesson, each other, or the teacher, a part of the course[1] in LA that I took that made a particular impact on me was how important affect is in creating a learner autonomous environment. Being an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) for over 10 years I have observed thousands of high school English classes taught by dozens of teachers. One aspect that permeated through each of the lessons was how students felt about learning and how aware and responsive the teacher was to the students. Now after taking this LA course, I am able to reflect back on past lessons and understand much of what I witnessed through the lens of LA. Although I suspected that there was a relationship between learners’ emotions and their language learning experience, I was unaware how “deep the rabbit hole goes”, so to speak. The fact that students emotional state can determine how well they retain information at the biological level (in their brains) made a tremendous impact on me. It’s not that I had never thought about it before but it was the fact that despite the evidence I can’t recall it being a factor taken into consideration by my coworkers. The mantra of many educators I have worked with has been “students need to be more motivated”, however, this, in my opinion, implies that the teachers view their students’ natural state as demotivated. Given, this might very well be the case, yet, I believe this prejudice can set a negative pace for a lesson or worse an entire semester. This then puts all the onus on the teacher to “do all the heavy lifting” even if there is nothing heavy to lift. This takes away any sense of agency and control from the students, thus holding opportunities for their learner autonomy hostage. I realized this can be remedied just by the teacher simply asking questions and listening to the students so they (the students) can have the opportunity to shape their learning environment.

Another factor which made an impact on me was the meta-affective and affective strategies which can be implemented in a lesson or throughout a course. For example, having students create collages from various English magazines based on their future language-learning goals as a language learner and putting it on display. This activity not only acts as a reminder for themselves but has a social dimension to it as well by being extrinsically motivating. Another example which I learned and have already used in class was having students think of positive solutions to negative situations by responding in English. I find this activity particularly effective because students must not only produce a meaning-focused output but also practice an affective strategy of thinking positively in negative situations. This, in turn, can be used as a strategy students implement to manage their learning motivation intrinsically.

As an ALT, I have no direct influence at the curricular level, just on one-on-one interactions and in stand-alone lessons. In my current situation, while I do have the opportunity to conduct lessons which are influenced by students’ interests as well as introduce activities that raise their affective awareness, I do not have the authority to assign homework or plan activities that require a semester-long process. Given the circumstances, recently while helping a student prepare for university entrance exams and interviews, I was able to use much of what I learned in the LA course. The student expressed enjoyment during and looked forward to our study sessions after school. I am happy to say that they were accepted into the university of their choice––which was a pretty big deal at my school––and the student said the study sessions were helpful and motivating. It is without a doubt that what I was able to implement in the study sessions, i.e., advising and affective strategies, is in direct relation to the student’s positive feelings about our meetings. Be that as it may, the more I learn about LA the more I notice that teachers generally lack the time to fully explore LA––notably in regard to its affective factors. Due to administrative restrictions, robust curriculums, and being inundated with an array of other responsibilities, teachers can only do so much concerning learner autonomy in today’s teaching environment. Therefore, I have become increasingly interested in the learning advising position and research in the field of learner autonomy.

Going forward I will continue to learn more about learner autonomy and build a tool belt of activities which encourage students to think about their learning and be aware of the impact emotions have on learning. Further, I must strengthen my emotional intelligence, so, when observing and interacting with students I can also be cognizant of their affective states. By doing so I will be able to improve my autonomy-supportive teaching practices–where the learners can take control of their learning and also be aware of the learning of their peers. Lastly, I will talk with fellow teachers about the relationship between affect and learning as well as the benefits of LA.

Notes on the Contributor

Phillip A. Bennett is currently a graduate student of the MA TESOL Program at Kanda University of International Studies. He has over 10 years of experience teaching in private Japanese high schools as well as teaching adult learners of all levels and walks of life.


Benson, P. (2011). Teaching and researching autonomy (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge

Damasio, A, (2001). Emotion and the human brain. In Unity of Knowledge: The Convergence of Natural and Human Science. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 935(1) pp. 101-106.

MacIntyre, P. D. (2002). Motivation, anxiety, and emotion in second language acquisition. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Individual differences in second language acquisition (pp. 45–68). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Murray, G. (2014). Social dimensions of autonomy in language learning. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan

O’Leary C. (2014). Developing autonomous language learners in HE: A social constructivist perspective. In G. Murray G. (Ed.), Social dimensions of autonomy in language learning. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan

Oxford, R. L. (2013). Teaching and researching language learning strategies. New York, NY: Routledge

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York, NY: The Gilfordpress

Salvoes, P., & Mayer J. D., (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality,  9(3) pp. 185-211.

[1] The course on learner autonomy is part of the MA TESOL program offered at the Graduate School of Kanda University of International Studies in Tokyo

[1] The course on learner autonomy is part of the MA TESOL program offered at the Graduate School of Kanda University of International Studies in Tokyo

4 thoughts on “Affective Factors in Learner Autonomy”

  1. Dear Philip,
    what you write resonates with me. As a language learner and as a teacher, I was for a long time unaware of the role of emotions in the learning and teaching process. It is only after I started to read about this topic that I realized how much emotions are interwoven with cognitive in the learning and teaching process. This is even truer when we look at the challenge of developing autonomy in language learning and teaching (see on this topic, Graves and Vye, 2012). Thus, your paper addresses a crucial aspect of a learning / teaching culture for autonomy.
    I like the way you write about your own experience as an Assistant Language Teacher and your interest in autonomy, which answered many of your questions about teaching and learning and gave you a new perspective to help you reflect on what you have been observing as an ALT.
    It is true, as you write, that autonomy is a complex field, entailing various interrelated aspects, and I understand that it is difficult to write just about just one of these. This appears in your introduction, in which you address several factors – emotion and cognition in learning processes, motivation, autonomy-supportive teaching strategies, and social aspects of autonomy. This was a bit confusing for me, since I was expecting you to focus on affective aspects, as your title suggests. If I can make a suggestion for the present paper, you may consider reviewing the introduction, highlighting affective factors within the complex field of autonomy. For your future writing and research, you could choose one of the aspects you would like to focus on, leaving the others in the background. This is something I had to learn, too, when I started writing about autonomy!
    Reading your paper, other publications came to my mind, which you probably would find interesting, if you want to deepen your reflection on affective factors and autonomy.
    There is a chapter by Arnold and Fonseca-Mora (2017), which deals with affective aspects in the autonomy classroom, looking both at “inside” factors (learner’s emotions) and “between” factors (teacher-learner and/or learner-learner relationships) – as you write, “how students felt about learning and how aware and responsive the teacher was to the students”. Andres and Arnold (2009) have written a textbook with suggestions for affect related language learning tasks. Also, in the seminal book by Arnold (1999) there is a wonderful chapter by Naoko Aoki on affect and autonomy (Aoki, 1999).
    Looking to us teachers, it is true that curricula, institutional and administrative constraints and responsibilities do affect our work and exercise a pressure we all feel in our daily tasks, so that addressing learners’ emotions and taking care of them may seem a luxury we cannot afford. However, we should listen more also to our own feelings as teachers and acknowledge these, in order to better deal with them.
    Of course, in one-to-one teaching and in language advising sessions it is easier to address affective aspects and to listen to the learner’s voice. This may explain why the student you helped to prepare for university entrance expressed enjoyment during your study sessions. I also think that as learning advisors we have a more comfortable position and work in a setting which is more conducive for addressing affect-related aspects of learning (see, for example, Yamashita, 2015).
    I do not really know how to conclude this review, I feel it is a reflection more than a review. I hope you will continue to reflect on affect and autonomy, it is worth doing it!
    If you are going to do it, how do you plan to collect data about your and/or your learners’ emotions?
    Looking forward to reading your reply!
    Andrés, V. & Arnold, J. (2009). Seeds of confidence. Self-esteem activities for the EFL classroom. Innsbruck: Helbling.
    Aoki, N. (1999). Affect and the role of teacher in the development of learner autonomy. In J. Arnold (Ed.), Affect in foreign language learning (pp. 142–154). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
    Arnold, J. (Ed.) (1999). Affect in language learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
    Arnold, J. & Fonseca-Mora, C. (2017). Autonomy and affect in language learning: A dynamic relationship. In M. Jiménez Raya, J.J. Martos Ramos & M.G. Tassinari (Eds.), Learner and teacher autonomy in higher education: Perspectives from modern language teaching (pp. 37–53). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
    Graves, N. & Vye, S. (2012). Practical frustration busters for learner and teacher autonomy. In A. Stewart & K. Irie (Eds.), Realizing autonomy. Practice and reflection in language education contexts (pp. 242–256). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
    Yamashita, H. (2015). Affect and the development of learner autonomy through advising. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 6(1), 62–85.

  2. Dear Giovanna,

    Thank you for your insight, the references, and suggestion for bringing the introduction back into focus towards the title and my apologies for the delayed reply. I added the following to the introduction:

    Lastly, returning to the affective factors in learner autonomy, teachers must guide students to have an awareness about their role as independent learners, for example, instead of using excuses for limited performance they will be able to have “an honest analysis of the circumstances that limited their performance” (Valdivia, S., McLoughlin, D., & Mynard, J., 2011, p. 94) and feel accountable for their learning. This fundamental change in their learning, as Yamashita (2015, p. 63) writes, gives students the “capacity to manage their affective states… along with the ability to set goals, find resources, and monitor and evaluate their learning.”

    What do you think?

    I still need to do much more reading to know what research has been conducted on the affective factors in learner autonomy. That being said, one way might be to have students write a paragraph or so about how they feel towards a course at the beginning of it (their goals, anticipations, worries, excitement, etc.) Then, depending on the length of the course (maybe once a month for a semester), they revisit their first writing and reflect on it focusing on what—if anything—has changed and why. During the course, the teacher would share strategies aimed at raising positive affect. This could serve on one hand as practice to have students become aware of their affective states (emotions and/or moods) throughout a course and how they impact their learning. This could also provide information on how (or if) students managed their affective states and how they felt about it as a whole.

    One aspect that seems to bother me about my idea is that by asking how someone feels about their learning can alter their “true” feelings. I just need to learn more about the topic, so, I’m looking forward to diving into your suggested readings! If you have any more, please share.


  3. Dear Phill,
    thank you for your reply. I like the paragraph you added to the introduction.
    Regarding how to research affective factors and learner autonomy, it may be a good idea to let the students write something about how they feel, though, as you write, the risk exists that they alter their feelings while writing, either, because they want to appear in a different light or because they may not be fully aware of their own feelings.
    You might be interested in a questionnaire on learners’ emotions developed by Rebecca Oxford and Christina Gkonou. The innovation in this questionnaire is that the questions about learners’ emotions are contextualised in different scenarios, for example “The teacher asks you a question in class. You do not understand the question, and therefore you ask the teacher to repeat it. After the repetition, you still don’t get the question”. These scenarios are based on classroom learning, but they could be adapted in relation to autonomous learning situations. You will find the questionnaire in Oxford, R. L. (2017). Teaching and researching language learning strategies. Self-regulation in context. New York: Routledge.
    There might be other ways to collect data about learners’ emotions and feelings. If you are interested in exploring further tools, we can keep discussing on this topic.
    Good luck with your project, looking forward to hearing from you

  4. Dear Philip and Giovanna,
    The article and your discussion are very thought-provoking for an important issue in learner autonomy that is emotion. I related to them a lot as I was also unaware of the role of emotions in language learning and teaching. And it was a crucial moment in one of my advising sessions that made me turn to this topic for more understanding: the advisee came to our meeting feeling very “frustrated and sad” because of his language test result and reported that he wanted to give up the course because he felt “unable”, as he mentioned in his narrative. As a new language adviser at that time, I felt unprepared to deal with how he was feeling at that moment and I addressed the situation by helping him to review his learning goals, setting up new ones, and reflecting on his emotions. A year later he wrote a language learning narrative recalling his experience in language advising and he mentioned how the reflection on his emotions at that particular session was important for his language learning. In our context, narratives have revealed quite a lot about learners’ emotions but, maybe, because of the reflection-oriented nature of advising.
    Giovanna, thank you for the suggested readings! There were some that I wasn’t aware of, so I’ve just noted them down to read anytime soon.
    And Philip, I hope to read more about how you are working with emotions in autonomous environments. I am sure we will benefit from your work. Good luck!
    Best wishes from Brazil.

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