Taking account of affective learner differences in the planning and delivery of language courses for open, distance and independent learning

Author: Stella Hurd


The affective side of language learning has been attracting more and more attention in recent years. Results from studies carried out with undergraduate language learners in the late 1990s into affect in language learning have indicated 'substantial links among affective measures and achievement' (Gardner, Tremblay and Masgoret, 1997: 344) and have highlighted the 'interdependent role that linguistics, cognition and affect play in FL and SL learning' (Yang, 1999: 246). However, most research on affective learner variables concentrates on classroom-based learners, and there is very little on those learning in other contexts. This paper therefore: reviews the literature on affective variables and its relevance for independent language learning contexts; examines some of the interrelationships between affective variables, and their links with cognitive styles and strategies; explores briefly the issues raised with regard to pedagogic intervention in independent learning contexts and the development of learner autonomy.

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Table of contents


This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


The affective side of language learning has been attracting more and more attention in recent years. Results from studies carried out with undergraduate language learners in the late 1990s into affect in language learning have indicated 'substantial links among affective measures and achievement' (Gardner, Tremblay and Masgoret, 1997: 344) and have highlighted the 'interdependent role that linguistics, cognition and affect play in FL and SL learning' (Yang, 1999: 246). However, most research on affective learner variables concentrates on classroom-based learners, and there is very little on those learning in other contexts. This paper therefore:

  • reviews the literature on affective variables and its relevance for independent language learning contexts;
  • examines some of the interrelationships between affective variables, and their links with cognitive styles and strategies;
  • explores briefly the issues raised with regard to pedagogic intervention in independent learning contexts and the development of learner autonomy.

Although open and distance language learning is the point of reference, the findings are, for the most part, equally relevant to self-access and other types of learning that take place outside the classroom, whether at home, in a Language Centre or through tandem exchanges.

The first part of the paper examines motivation, introversion, extroversion and risk-taking, anxiety and beliefs, and the learning context. Styles and strategies are then discussed, with a closer look at the ways in which variables are seen to interact with each other to promote successful learning. Finally, implications for course writers and tutors are addressed.


For those learning outside the conventional classroom, motivation has a special and direct role. In the case of distance learning, it is often the determining factor in whether to study or not. The majority of OU language learners are highly motivated. Their motivations are largely intrinsic, although these can and often do become more extrinsic and instrumental or at least more focused, as aspirations to achieve higher qualifications begin to emerge. Although motivation, according to Dörnyei, (2001: 2) remains 'one of the most elusive concepts', the extensive body of research with relation to language learning carried out over three decades, (Gardner and Lambert, 1972; Naiman et al, 1978; Crookes and Schmidt, 1991; Gardner and MacIntyre, 1993, Oxford and Shearin, 1994; Dörnyei, 2001) would seem to confirm that attitudes and motivation are in many instances the best overall predictors of success in language learning.

For independent learners, the inherently demanding nature of self-instruction, together with the shift of locus of control from teacher to learner, implies that only those who maintain their levels of motivation are likely to succeed, and this was borne out in a study I carried out with distance language learners in 1998 (Hurd, 2000). At the start of their course, 89.1% of them considered motivation to be a characteristic of the 'good distance language learner'. Halfway through the course, an even higher percentage - 98.9% - saw motivation, along with persistence, as equally important factors influencing successful distance language learning. Demotivation was caused by factors related to the distance learning situation, for example lack of opportunity to practise with others and share experiences, frustration at unresolved problems with aspects of the language, difficulty in assessing personal progress and perceived inadequacy of feedback. What came over strongly was the ease with which students can lose motivation and the frustration that can set in when obstacles are met. These comments give a clear message to course writers to ensure that materials give: crystal clear explanations, help with self-monitoring, ideas for practice and high quality feedback.

Extroversion, introversion and risk-taking

With regard to the personality traits of extroversion and introversion, Skehan's analysis (1989: 101) found that there was 'something of a conflict between general learning predictions in this area, and language learning predictions'. Extroverts, it would seem, because of their outgoing and impulsive nature have 'the appropriate personality trait for language learning (as distinct from general, content-oriented learning) since such learning is best accomplished, according to most theorists, by actually using language'. Introverts, on the other hand, appear to perform better in subjects other than language learning. Studies have not, however, confirmed this link, and have indeed found positive correlation between introversion and certain metacognitive skills on the part of language learners, such as planning, monitoring and systematicity. Introverts are also seen, according to Dewaele, (2001: 155) to 'possess a better Long Term Memory and [...] a richer vocabulary' If there is any link, it is likely to be in the oral domain (Rossier, 1976, cited in Skehan, 1989, p.102), and classroom practice would seem to confirm this. Extrovert students tend to participate more in classroom interactions, worry less about accuracy and have a tendency to take risks with their language, all of which are assets when it comes to communicative oral competence. For language learners outside the classroom, those with high levels of confidence and who are outgoing in their nature are most likely to fit the profile above. According to my survey, they are also likely to be men. 64% of the men, as opposed to 46.4% of the women, claimed to make use of any language practice opportunities that came their way. A third of the men (33.3%) also considered themselves to be self-confident, against a quarter of the women (25.3%). Extroversion, as we have seen, may well have a role to play in the development of oral skills, but introversion may be of even more significance for the independent language learner, given its positive correlation with metacognitive skills and their link with autonomy.


According to Guiora quoted in Ehrman (1999: 78): 'the task of learning a new language is a profoundly unsettling psychological proposition'. Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope (1991: 31) also contend that 'probably no other field of study implicates self-concept and self-expression to the degree that language study does'. Anxiety, then 'ranks high among factors influencing language learning, regardless of whether the setting is informal or formal' (Oxford, 1999: 59). Studies into anxiety in language learning have focused on 'a type of anxiety related specifically to language situations, termed language anxiety' (Gardner and MacIntyre, 1993: 5). This is seen as 'a distinct complex of self-perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors [...] arising from the uniqueness of the language learning process' (Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope, 1986, p.128) which 'does not appear to bear a strong relation to other forms of anxiety' (MacIntyre, 1999: 30). Findings from studies indicate that language anxiety is negatively related to achievement in the L2 and is associated with 'deficits in listening comprehension, impaired vocabulary learning, reduced word production, low scores on standardized tests, low grades in language courses or a combination of these factors' (Gardner, Tremblay & Masgoret, 1997: 345). The effects of anxiety are described as 'pervasive and subtle' (MacIntyre and Gardner, 1994: 283) and can 'influence both language learning and communication processes' (MacIntyre, 1999: 24). Like motivation, there is a link between anxiety and proficiency levels, with anxiety levels often at their highest early on in language learning, and then declining as proficiency increases (Gardner and MacIntyre, 1993: 6). This is true of distance language learners too, who, according to White (1995: 208), report 'initial feelings of lack of preparedness and lack of confidence and a sense of inadequacy'.

While anxiety can be a factor in language learning in all contexts, if we are to believe Ross Paul (1990), there are more likely to be anxious learners outside than inside the classroom: 'While students with a lower self-esteem are those most likely to have difficulty with independent learning, they are also the group most apt to choose distance education courses (out of false impressions that they are less demanding than classroom-based ones)'. Distance language learners do have more choices however, including whether to attend tutorials and mix with other learners or not. They are therefore spared, at least until the oral examination, one known anxiety-inducing factor - live performance in the foreign language in front of others.

Beliefs and learning context

All learners come to their studies with their own particular beliefs, assumptions and expectations about the language learning process and about themselves as learners. According to a survey done for the European Year of Languages 2001, '22% of the EU population do not learn languages because they believe they are "not good" at them'. Cotterall (1995: 195) maintains that 'the beliefs and attitudes learners hold have a profound influence on their learning behaviour' and that 'teachers and materials writers need to be aware of, and sensitive to students' pre-existing assumptions about the language learning process' (1999: 496). With regard to distance learners, White (1999: 444) also contends that 'attention to expectations and beliefs can contribute to our understanding of the realities of the early stages of self-instruction in language'

Learning context is increasingly cited as a key factor influencing other factors in language learning. The separate studies undertaken in 1999 by Benson and Lor, Victori, and Sakui and Gaies, all stress the importance of context in influencing beliefs and attitudes. White (1999, p.449) goes further in identifying 'the relationship between the learner and the context as the critical aspects of self-instruction' with 'each exerting an influence on the other'. She cites the 'metacognitive growth' experienced by most participants in her study, maintaining that the distance learning context itself influences them to develop their knowledge about themselves as learners, and extend their skills. In my own study, students' comments at the end of the course were also evidence of 'metacognitive growth'. Some talked of 'increased self-confidence' and of being 'more assertive in conversation'; others claimed to be 'more willing to take risks and make mistakes'. There is a danger, however, that the less confident, the anxious and the reticent may slip through the net and drop out. To these students in particular we have a responsibility to ensure that the learning context, including the course materials and the quality of tutor feedback, is as conducive as possible to effective learning from the start.

Styles and strategies

One learner variable that continues to attract much attention is learning style. More recently, work on learning strategies has identified a close link with learning styles. Cohen (1998: 15) contends that 'learning strategies do not operate by themselves, but rather are directly tied to the learner's underlying learning styles [...] and other personality-related variables (such as anxiety and self-concept) in the learner [...]' Dickinson (1990: 200) also talks of a likely 'relationship between cognitive style and preferred learning processes and strategies in language learning'. Ellis' case study of two adult German ab initio learners (1992: 175-189) confirms that 'learners do benefit if the instruction suits their learning style' but he asks: 'are learning styles fixed or do they change as acquisition proceeds?' (174). A consensus has yet to emerge, though there is evidence from Oxford, 1990; O'Malley and Chamot, 1993; Cohen, 1998 and Skehan, 1998 that preferences and styles can change as learners gain proficiency, or in response to pedagogic intervention in the form of strategy training.


One of the debatable points about many learner variables is indeed the extent to which they are amenable to change, and if so, at what point and in what way. Larsen-Freeman (2001: 20) argues that 'it is conceivable that as we search for an advanced conceptualisation of learner factors, we will also find that they are not only mutable, but that they also vary in their influence, depending on the learner's stage of acquisition' If preferences and styles can change over time, then it would seem likely that other factors such as beliefs, motivation and levels of anxiety and self-confidence can also be modified. The causal agent, however, is not easy to identify. For example, in the case of motivation, Ellis (1985, 1999: 119) warns that 'we do not know whether it is motivation that produces successful learning, or successful learning that enhances motivation'. Ushioda (1996: 10) talks of the 'increasingly sophisticated research methods to investigate causal direction' and the 'vicious or virtuous circles of cause and effect that may characterize learning experience'.

For those learning in independent contexts, autonomy is another important factor in the motivation-success chain. Dickinson (1995: 171) maintains that 'success in learning [...] appears to lead to greater motivation only for those students who accept responsibility for their own learning success'. Ushioda (1996: 2) confirms this link: 'autonomous language learners are by definition motivated learners'.

Gardner's original socio-education model of second-language acquisition 'explicitly proposes reciprocal causation' (1993: 2) between individual differences, contexts and outcomes, with particular emphasis given to the 'very dominant role played by the social context' (8). Later adaptations of the model (1993) show 'causal links from language anxiety and motivation to language learning strategies'. Gardner's extended 1995 model produced with Tremblay introduces three variables mediating between attitudes and behaviour: goal salience which includes frequency and specificity of goals, valence i.e. the desire to learn and attitudes towards the L2, and self-efficacy, including anxiety. In this model the paths run from attitudes to motivational behaviour to achievement, though in the discussion section reciprocal paths are not ruled out. Oxford and Nyikos (1989: 295) talk of a 'chain of variables': 'We would expect that use of appropriate strategies leads to enhanced actual and perceived proficiency, which in turn creates high self-esteem, which leads to strong motivation, spiralling to still more use of strategies, great actual and perceived proficiency, high self-esteem, improved motivation and so on'. The results of Yang's 1999 study (515-535) also suggest a cyclical rather than a uni-directional relationship between learners' beliefs, motivation and strategy use.

Strategy development in OU language courses

Benson (2001: 68) is of the opinion that 'to date [...] research does not provide conclusive evidence on the mutability of individual variables in learning, their interrelationships, or the role of experience, training and self-control in change' But in the absence of conclusive evidence one way or another on the effectiveness of strategy development, and guided by the needs of distance learners for support in developing their own approaches, OU language course writers do make serious efforts to integrate learning strategies into the materials. Practical suggestions are to be found in the French courses where, at level 1, Learning strategies and study skills sections, and at Levels 2 and 3, Dossier sections, regularly feed in examples of strategies, with suggestions for their use. Students at lower levels are also encouraged to review what they have learned at regular intervals and to re-do activities or try out strategies suggested, if they haven't already done so. The Boîtes à idées (French) and Más práctica (Spanish) sections offer ideas for further practice and opportunities for transfer to individual contexts. Pensándolo bien language awareness activities in Spanish encourage learners to reflect on what they already know, and make connections. Practical guidance in the development of specific language skills, for example reading, is to be found in the German courses. The Spanish Diario sections invite students to comment on aspects of their learning. In all courses, students are encouraged to experiment in order to determine which strategies work best for them.

The answer key section, which is the end-section of each course book also contains material that addresses the learner directly, and attempts to anticipate differences in interpretation and approach, and possible confusions and difficulties with regard to the activities learners have undertaken. The language has to be carefully chosen so as not to undermine or patronize; it must be concise, easily accessible and to the point, so that it doesn't cause students to switch off. The path between supporting students on the one hand, and being too prescriptive or directive on the other, is a difficult one to tread, all the more so when you do not know your learners. It is part of the tension described by McDonough (1999: 12) as the 'double-edged relation between teaching people to learn and learner autonomy'

In addition to the materials there is the tutor who also has a crucial role to play. Each OU student is assigned a tutor at the start of the course and although tutorials are not compulsory, many OU students do attend them and for some they are the most important and enjoyable part of the course. By employing methods that lower what Krashen terms as the 'affective filter' - reducing anxiety, identifying and praising progress, pinpointing areas of concern with sensitivity, and boosting confidence - the tutor can help maintain motivation levels. She or he can also influence the use of different strategies, encouraging reluctant students to try things out, take a few risks, learn to reflect on their learning, take responsibility and monitor their progress. Reminding individual students of the strategies they have already used to motivate themselves at different times is also an important tutor task. For all learners, especially those who do not attend tutorials, the tutor at a distance has a pivotal role in providing feedback on assessed work, with full explanations of how marks have been allotted, constructive criticism in a supportive framework and concrete suggestions for improving language and learning skills. She or he might also be the catalyst for the setting up of local self-help groups which students manage themselves and use to practise the language in an informal social context.


Larsen-Freeman (2001: 24) argues that 'we need more holistic research that links integrated individual difference research [...] to the processes, mechanisms and conditions of learning within different contexts over time'. The complex nature of the language learning process and the range and breadth of variables that can influence language acquisition indicate that there is considerable scope for further studies, particularly in relation to independent learning contexts. Increasing diversity in the student population, through widening participation, new technologies and new, more cost-efficient practices in course production are forcing a re-think of current activity and providing a challenge to all those involved in the design and delivery of learning constantly to seek out ways of ensuring that the needs of our language learners are met. Most important of all is that we resist what Skehan terms as a 'conspiracy of uniformity' (1998: 260) by making assumptions about the needs of language learners, and that we take positive steps to 'explore just how instruction can be adapted to take account of the person who is most involved, the actual learner' (281).


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