Learner Engagement: Behavioral, Cognitive, & Affective

We’re all looking to improve our “learner engagement,” right? But what exactly do we mean by “engagement”? In elearning, we often focus on clicks and interaction. That’s part of behavioral engagement. However, we can also support the cognitive and affective dimensions of engagement.

Dimensions of Learner Engagement

Behavioral engagement

Behavioral engagement is the actions and behaviors people take during learning, which may support or hinder learning. Different researchers have identified different behaviors as showing engagement, but this one seems relevant for workplace elearning.

  • On-task: Working on the elearning
  • On-task conversation: Talking to someone about the elearning
  • Off-task conversation: Talking about any other subject
  • Off-task solitary behavior: Any behavior that didn’t involve working on the elearning or another individual (such as reading a magazine or searching online)
  • Inactivity: Staring into space, putting their head down on the desk
  • Gaming the system: Guessing without reflection

I adapted this from a coding scheme developed by Baker et al (2004), as cited in Baker et al (2010). The version in Baker et al (2010) refers to a specific educational software program for students; I made this more general to elearning.

A participant might show behavioral engagement by clicking next through elearning. That would be “on-task” behavior. However, behavioral engagement alone, especially at that superficial level, isn’t enough to develop new skills.

Cognitive engagement

Cognitive engagement can be defined as “mental effort and thinking strategies.” This can include using learning strategies and persisting through challenges.

Deep cognitive engagement involves elaboration processes, while shallow involves more rote memorization and other strategies that engage the new information in more superficial ways (e.g., rehearsing and rereading).

Xie, Heddy, & Greene (2019)

Elearning often doesn’t measure or encourage much beyond shallow cognitive engagement. Multiple choice knowledge check questions often just measure whether people can remember what they heard two minutes earlier. If we want people to learn skills that require deep thought, then we need to cognitively engage them at a deeper level. They need opportunities to practice skills and decision making, applying knowledge in relevant contexts.

Affective engagement

Affective engagement is sometimes called “emotional engagement.” This dimension of learner engagement deals with people’s emotional responses to learning.

In general, positive emotions are correlated with higher achievement and self-regulation (Xie, Heddy, & Greene, 2019). However, that isn’t necessarily always true. Baker et al (2010) found that boredom is correlated with lower engagement and poor outcomes, but frustration didn’t consistently lead to problems. Boredom was more likely to lead students to game the system. For workplace training, this would be clicking next quickly and randomly guessing multiple choice questions until passing.

Affective engagement also relates to “task-values,” or the value people perceive in completing a task. A task might be intrinsically enjoyable (intrinsic value), useful (future utility value), or important to do well (attainment value). If you view a task as useful and enjoyable, you’re likely to feel positive emotions toward completing it. This also relates to motivation and persistence.

Cognitive and affective engagement

While identifying three separate dimensions of engagement may be a useful model to consider, in reality they aren’t so clear cut. Everything influences everything else. Positive emotions may lead to greater persistence and cognitive engagement, which in turn leads to more on-task behavior.

For example, attainment and intrinsic valuing were positively related to deep processing, self-regulation, enjoyment, hope, while negatively related to boredom and frustration. We can see that boredom, anxiety, confusion, and frustration all show positive correlations with shallow processing, while enjoyment and curiosity were related to deep processing.

Xie, Heddy, & Greene (2019)

Some of the research doesn’t separate cognitive and affective dimensions. While we tend to think about “rational thought” as separate from emotion, our decisions are really based on both together. Some researchers, therefore, talk about “cognitive-affective states” rather than separating the concepts (Baker et al, 2010).


Baker, R. S.J.d., D’Mello, S. K., Rodrigo, M. T., & Graesser, A. C. (2010). Better to be frustrated than bored: The incidence, persistence, and impact of learners’ cognitive–affective states during interactions with three different computer-based learning environments. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 68(4), 223–241. doi: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2009.12.003

Xie, K., Heddy, B. C., & Greene, B. A. (2019). Affordances of using mobile technology to support experience-sampling method in examining college students engagement. Computers & Education, 128, 183–198. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2018.09.020


Thanks to Cara North for sharing resources from her presentation The Case of the Disengaged Learner. She’s the one who got me thinking along the lines of these three dimensions of engagement.