Faculty Club / Student Engagement / All the Feels: 4 Ways to Use Emotion to Drive Motivation

All the Feels: 4 Ways to Use Emotion to Drive Motivation

By tapping into the affective domain, English professor Cristy Lopez-Bowlin, MA, has turned reluctant writers into highly engaged students.

By tapping into the affective domain, English professor Cristy Lopez-Bowlin, MA, has turned reluctant writers into highly engaged students.

Cristy Lopez-Bowlin, MA


Adjunct Instructor of English,
Oxnard College in California

MA and BA in English

In 2018, California enacted a law stating that community colleges cannot deny students entry into transfer-level math and English classes unless the college can prove that the students are highly unlikely to succeed. This means that very few students can be required to take remedial courses.

As an English instructor at Oxnard College in California, Cristy Lopez-Bowlin, MA, knew this was likely to change the makeup of her English composition classes, so she started thinking about how she might need to change her approach.

“Now that all students—those with varying educational and cultural backgrounds—can enter English 101, my job as a teacher is to make all the students feel like they belong there and can and will be successful,” she says.

This change drove her interest to the affective domain—one of the three domains of learning objectives outlined in Bloom’s Taxonomy. The affective domain focuses on emotion and attitude about the self (the other two domains are the cognitive, which focuses on knowledge, and psychomotor, which focuses on physical activity and action).

After spending a year researching applications of the affective domain in the classroom, Lopez-Bowlin has discovered a number of ways to embed an “emotional” component into any English curriculum. Here, she shares the ones she loves best—and how she uses them to help all her students feel (and be) successful.

See materials


“What I love most about teaching this class is the sense of community we build by the end of [the semester]. I can see how many friendships are formed, and I develop true connections with the students. The fact that they also learn about writing skills is the cherry on top of the sundae.”
-Cristy Lopez-Bowlin, MA

Course: English R101S

Course description: This co-requisite course provides additional skills and support instruction for students enrolled in English 101 College Composition. This course will provide additional instruction in areas where students tend to require more attention and will allow for more concentrated efforts on core elements, such as composing a thesis statement and evaluating appropriate outside sources.

Lopez-Bowlin’s 4 tips for using emotions to motivate students

Lopez-Bowlin believes in designing assignments that are emotionally intelligent while also getting deeper into the lives of students to inform how she approaches material. The goal: to create an emotional connection that drives motivation and, in turn, composition.

“Some students may be naturally gifted writers, but if they aren’t motivated, then they won’t succeed in this class,” she says.

Here, Lopez-Bowlin offers four tips to educators who want to apply the affective domain to their teaching—especially for writing assignments.

1. Help students understand what motivates them (beyond grades)

Motivation is one of the key challenges students face, so Lopez-Bowlin brings in readings and TED Talk videos that focus on what motivates other writers. She then explores the concept of motivation with her students by asking what motivates them. Some respond with things like, “I want to get good grades so my parents will be pleased” or “I will get extra-credits points if I go to the writing center.” She explains that looking for rewards outside of oneself is known as extrinsic motivation.

She then introduces the value of intrinsic motivation, or focusing on how they feel when they learn something new. She asks them things like, “What makes you want to find value in reading?” and “What makes you want to improve as a writer?” She also explores intrinsic concepts such as freedom of choice (I can write about a topic I care about) and purpose (I can persuade others to see my point of view and make a positive change in the world).

2. Reduce pressure (and boost confidence) with low-stakes practice

Lopez-Bowlin assigns a daily five-point practice writing activity, which allows her to provide students with feedback about content and grammar. Students feel freer to dive into these low-stakes assignments since their overall grade is not greatly impacted.

She also assigns homework consisting of a weekly reading (e.g., chapters from a book or a few magazine articles) for which the student must provide a written summary as well as selected quotes that they will share during class discussion.

3. Assign peer groups to build accountability (and community)

When students are absent from class, they can access Lopez-Bowlin’s PowerPoint presentations and lectures on the school’s learning management system. But she has added another layer of accountability, too.

“In week two of the semester, I randomly assign students into groups of four or five,” Lopez-Bowlin says. “The members in each group exchange contact information so that if any member is absent from a class, they have to check in with other group members to find out what they missed.”

The value of these groups is multifold, she says: Students learn to rely on one another, and they get to teach each other, which helps them realize how much they know. More importantly, this system helps to create more accountability, since each student must be prepared with good notes if they happen to be contacted by a classmate who was absent.

Once a week, Lopez-Bowlin pulls aside one group at the end of class to talk for 10 to 15 minutes. She asks how they are feeling about the class and about school in general, as well as what is going on in their lives that impacts their studies in positive or negative ways. Although it takes several of these meetings for most students to warm up enough to discuss difficulties, this process further builds a sense of community and belonging. (In anonymous evaluations at the end of the term, Lopez-Bowlin has received positive feedback from students who particularly appreciate the small-group meetings.)

4. Connect students to resources that can help them succeed

On an ad hoc basis, Lopez-Bowlin shares information about how to access school resources that will help students in various aspects of their lives. Though the Tutoring Center is high on her list, she does not focus only on things that can help them get better grades. For example, she has invited a guest speaker from the school’s Dream Resource Center, which has a variety of services for undocumented students, including mental health counseling and assistance with financial aid. Her guest speaker has explained that the school has pro bono lawyers who can help students navigate the green card process and other aspects of immigration law. (Even students who are not Dreamers often know someone who can benefit from this information.) “It’s a safe space with peer support not only from undocumented students but also from allies,” Lopez-Bowlin says. She also reminds them of what is available at the Counseling Department, which offers an array of psychological and educational services.

Lopez-Bowlin says that, by helping students find resources that can help them, she is also demonstrating that she and the school itself are there to support them—in all aspects of their lives.

“When students feel cared about,” she says, “they are much more likely to be successful in their education, as well as in their work and personal lives.”

Get the Faculty Club newsletter

Browse by Topic