Model for the Creation of
Meaningful Community College Learning Experiences
Strategies for Dealing with Negative Emotions
Things to Remember
Because we are mind/body creatures, we cannot separate learning from
our emotions. On the page, Creating
a Learning-Centered EMOTIONAL Environment, we looked at some of
the research that indicates emotions can either enhance or inhibit
learning. So in this section, we will think about negative emotions
that we frequently face in our classrooms at the community college
level and suggest ways that we can make the learning environment emotionally
Stress and Anxiety
As we have seen, the brain gives priority
to processing incoming data that poses threat to survival.
In our times we no longer face threat from wild beasts, but many experiences
in our lives can be threatening. Think of the panic you experience
when you suddenly hear a loud noise or become aware that a oncoming
car is headed straight for you, or when you loose your footing on
a steep slope and begin to fall. For
a moment or two, try to recall that feeling when "your hair stands
on end." We know that at these moments we are possessed by one
thought only--escaping the danger. As Robert Sylvester describes it,
we move out of the reflective mode
of processing, which is required in our classrooms, into the reflexive
mode of brain processing that allows us to take quick
evasive action. Now, in our classes, we obviously don't have this
level of danger, but we need to recognize that the absence of extreme
danger does not mean that our students do not perceive threat.
We have all observed how a students can shut down or down
shift when we call on them, even though we are confident
they know the answer. Since I work with ESOL students, I see
this quite frequently. Even when non-native speakers are sure
of an answer or have something worthwhile to contribute to a discussion,
they will often remain silent, even though the classroom environment
is warm and supportive. It is threatening for them to
speak out in a class of native English speakers. However, this
reaction is not limited to non-native speakers. I can remember
sitting in classes where I knew the answers, but somehow my throat
just locked up whenever I thought of adding anything to a discussion
in certain classes. I occasionally still get that reaction when
I'm sitting in meetings and I want to express what might be an unpopular
view. As I try to speak, it feels as if my brain is paralyzed
and my words come out in a jumble. We all occasionally feel
threatened and hesitate to speak out.
In the same way,
we need to recognize that our students perceive
threat in many different ways. Students
from minority groups, students with disabilities or learning
problems, and students who are different in any way from the majority
cultural group of a classroom may all perceive threat in the learning
environment. Other students may find teachers threatening.
After all, we have to power to give grades. Another factor
that can cause a feeling of threat is the physical environment itself.
Over crowding in a classroom, poor lighting or air quality, and noise
are some examples. Martha Kaufeldt (1999) lists the following conditions
as possible stressors for our students:
of potential physical harm from teacher or other students
threats, embarrassment, put-downs
disrespect for self, culture, or social group
time to complete a task
of time for reflection and expansion
correct outcomes established by an external agent
work with little support for learning
of orderliness and coherence
and social isolation
purpose, schedule, or agenda
of information about task, behavior expectations, or goals
for failure, such as loss of privileges
and extrinsic rewards
irrelevance and lack of personal meaning (p. 8)
Jensen (2000a) suggests
some additional stressors:
Many other factors
outside of the classroom can reduce a student's ability to cope with
perceived threat in class. Students who come from stressful environments
may perceive threat where others might not. They may be experiencing
financial problems, family problems, health problems, or even abuse.
Because of stress in their personal lives, these students may be unable
to cope with "normal" academic stress and may find it personally
So, many different
kinds of experiences can contribute to the perception of threat in individual
students. The unique characteristic of perceived threat in an academic
setting is that it is most often ongoing in nature, as opposed to the
quick fight/flight reaction to encountering an wild animal or other
threats that our ancient ancestors faced. When
the perception of threat is ongoing, we call it stress or anxiety.
We know that the body reacts to threat with strong physiological
changes. Unfortunately, our bodies react in much the same way to the
more subtle and ongoing forms of threat that we experience as anxiety
and stress. Much has been written by Jensen and others about the physical
effects of threat on the body, so I won't elaborate on that here. From
our own personal experience we know that a high level of stress interferes
with our effectiveness as thinkers. In fact, any time we experience
strong emotions like anger or fear, we know that is not the time to
be making serious or important decisions. We may be able to recognize
when a student is experiencing a higher level of threat because of the
down-shifting, but the signs of stress
and anxiety may be less obvious.
While common sense
tells us that the perception of threat and
the experience of stress and anxiety can interfere with learning,
research now backs that up. According to Jensen (1998),
"Survival always overrides pattern-detection and complex problem solving.
Students are less able to understand connections or detect larger levels
of organization. This fact has tremendous implications for learning.
Learning narrows to the memorization of isolated facts. Learners
with lower stress can put together relationships, understand broad underlying
theories, and integrate a wider range of material." (p 57) The
Caine's eleventh principle also speaks to the effect of threat on learning
experiences. Principle 11 says complex learning is enhanced by
challenge and inhibited by threat. "The brain/mind learns optimally--it
makes the maximum connections--when appropriately challenged in an environment
that encourages taking risks. However, the brain/mind "downshifts"
under perceived threat. ...That is why we must create and maintain
an atmosphere of relaxed alertness,
involving low threat and high challenge." (Caines, 1997a,
pp. 104-108) Kaufeldt (1999) suggests that students experiencing
threat, anxiety, or stress are less capable of the following behaviors:
or hearing environmental clues
and accessing prior learning
in complex tasks, open-ended thinking and questioning
to filter out unimportant data
and mentally rehearsing
in complex intellectual tasks. (p. 5)
Below we will suggest
some strategies that are very effective for minimizing the perception
of threat and reducing stress and anxiety for our students.
Low Self Esteem
and Learned Helplessness
whether from actual trauma, from continued stress and anxiety, or simply
the perception of lack of control, eventually impacts our cognitive
belief systems and our sense of self. It can result in the sense of
Jensen (1998) says that ongoing experiences of these types may lead
students to form faulty conclusions such as "I can't do anything
right," which in turn cause negative self expectations, anxiety, depression,
and anger. What is especially sobering about this process
is that, according to Jensen (1998) there is evidence that certain traumas
can literally rewire the brain. (p. 58) It's important to recognize
that learned helplessness is not intentionally learned, but that is
rather is linked to one's total cognitive belief system about one's
self. Whether we're talking about low self-esteem in general or the
more focused learned helplessness, both are common among our community
total of all that is in our long-term
storage areas forms the basis for our view of the
world around us. This information helps us to make sense out
of events, to understand the laws of nature, to recognize cause and
effect, and to form decisions about goodness, truth, and beauty.
The total construct of how we see the world is called the cognitive
belief system... Deep within the
cognitive belief system lies the self-concept. While
the cognitive belief system portrays the way we see the world,the
self-concept describes the way we see ourselves in that
world. (Sousa, 2000, pp. 51-53)
Jensen (2000a) provides
some additional probable causes of learned helplessness:
- repeated exposure
to trauma and high stress, especially when one feels the lack of control
and the lack of influence
- societal or cultural
beliefs such as the belief in external controlling forces on one's
- repeated negative
experiences, for example, repeated failure in math
- observation of
others encountering helplessness, for example, when global disasters
on TV are viewed over and over again
- overly controlling
He also gives us
a list of symptoms of learned helplessness:
caring what happens
up before starting; or sabotaging positive outcomes
and emotional deficits; depression, anxiety
acting upon a request; or not following directions
attraction to hostile humor
belief that the outcome of an event is independent of input
instead of activity
limitations that exacerbate passivity (p 259)
(2002a) takes the notion of self concept one step farther when she says,
"Children are known to develop two self-images as they mature into adulthood:
a 'social self-image' and an 'academic self-image." (Lecture/Discussion
A) The social self-image comes
reflects how students relate to others in their social environment,
while the academic self-image
is shaped success in using higher order thinking skills and other academic
competencies. Many times, the social self image is more important
because it is the source of acceptance, while academic self-image suffers
as a result of repeated failures at school. Sometimes, the culture
of the social environment and the culture of academia are in opposition,
forcing students to make difficult choices. We often see students
who appear to be very competent in their daily lives, but whose academic
self-image is low. We need to be aware of the difference.
of students entering school feel good about themselves. By the 5th
grade only 20% do. Only one out of five high school students has positive
self-esteem. (Gibbs, 2001, p. 18)
So we recognize
that self concept is shaped by past experiences and emotions.
If a learning situation is perceived negatively because of past failures,
the learner will resist the new learning situation, in effect, closing
off receptivity to new information. Physical signs of this happening
include folding arms, getting absorbed in other work, and causing distractions.
Picture a student sitting in math class almost daring her teacher to
make her understand those math concepts or a student in an English literature
class daring the teacher to make poetry interesting. This unfortunately
describes some of our students only too well.
will be given below to deal with this type of problem.
Self concept and motivation are related. The students
who believe they can learn are more easily motivated to learn.
They have a belief that they will be successful. And they enjoy the
feeling of success that they get from their own efforts. Eric
Jensen (2000a) tells us that self concept is an important component
of successful learning, citing Lozanov's comment, "If the learner is
confident, learning increases." (p. 115) Jensen
goes on to make the radical statement, "There is no such thing
as an unmotivated learner." (p. 258) Yet we've all experienced
students who present themselves with little outward motivation.
I am constantly surprised when I do entry level advising at the students
who have gone through the application process to TC3 but seem to have
no idea why they want to come here to study. So what does Jensen mean
by saying there is no such thing as an unmotivated learner. He clarifies
this by saying, "There are, however, temporary unmotivated states
in which learners are either reinforced and supported or neglected and
labeled." (p. 258) In other words, Jensen contends that all students
are intrinsically motivated, but external factors such as the following
control, and motivation
critical, or negatively competitive relationships
or vague feedback
or sexism, or prejudice of any kind
education (unless learners help generate the outcomes)
policies and rules
management and policy-making
or limited learning styles
put-downs, and criticism
perception of irrelevant content
systems of any kind
in just one or two of the multiple intelligences
that limit personal goal achievement
without authority (pp. 258-259)
I would guess that
most of us would have to plead guilty on at least one, if not several
We teachers expect that our students will possess a high level of
intrinsic motivation, and I, for one, am sometimes baffled when students
lack that intrinsic motivation. Patricia Cross (2001)
offers an explanation when she says in "Motivation, Er...Will
That Be on the Test?" that "Students' motivations are strongly influenced
by what they think is important (value) and what they believe they can
accomplish (expectancy)." (p. 6) If value and expectancy don't
agree, we can imagine that internal tension results. It's one thing
to say that you value being educated, it's quite another to believe
that you can actually accomplish it. Gerald Grow (1991) in his article
"Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed" talks about dependent
learners, students who passively expect teachers to "teach"
them, i.e., to do all the work. He provides some suggestions to help
these students become self-directed, which is what we really mean by
motivated. We'll look at his ideas further below.
provides further insight by explaining that there are essentially two
kinds of motivation: the motivation to succeed and the motivation
to avoid failure. (p. 7) Unfortunately, many of our students
are more motivated to avoid failure than to achieve success because
of past experiences with failure. According to Cross, students
who expect to be successful respond well to tasks in which they perceive
a 50-50 chance of success. On the other hand, students who expect
to fail don't put forth the necessary effort for success.
"They may pretend indifference, they may choose easy learning tasks
in which they are assured of success, or they may choose tasks so difficult
that neither they nor others expect them to succeed." (p. 8) Cross
shares an interesting insight from Martin Covington, a learning psychologist
at UCLA Berkeley: "Traditional schooling is seen by Covington
as a competitive system with an inordinate emphasis on ability.
One of the oddities of the traditional American culture, especially
the youth culture, is that it is better to be thought lazy than stupid.
Thus, in the competition of the classroom, students prefer to be seen
by others as succeeding through ability rather than through effort."
(p. 9) In other words, it is much better to fail because of lack of
effort than because of lack of ability. Implicit in this belief
is the notion that ability is fixed and the rejection of the notion
that effort can impact ability. Students may also attribute their
lack of success to external factors such as trouble with a boy friend
or girl friend, poor health, a bad night's sleep, or an unreasonable
teacher. As long as success is controlled by such external factors,
the self concept is not lowered by failure.
Grades) as De-Motivators
the lower levels of education, many teachers use rewards as well as
the threat of punishment or the loss of a reward to increase motivation.
At the community college level, we provide rewards and punishments in
more subtle ways: a compliment on a job well done or a referral to the
Learning Center for extra help. The idea of rewards is actually a carry
over from behaviorism, the notion that if we reinforce positive behavior,
it will continue. But current brain research indicates that the
brain prefers and is capable of making its own rewards. They
are called opiates and
are used to regulate stress and pain. These opiates can produce
a natural high, similar to morphine, alcohol, nicotine, heroin, and
cocaine. "Students who succeed usually feel good, and that's reward
enough for most of them" (Jensen, 2000a, p.66) However,
in some instances, rewards might be useful, but
they must be used judiciously to increase
motivation. A good reward is temporary, student generated, random,
and intangible. Positive feedback, a celebration even as brief
as a moment of applause or a cheer, dismissing class early, adding extra
credit to an assignment are examples of good rewards. Threat
and poorly chosen rewards are counterproductive to intrinsic motivation.
If rewards, even positive ones, are granted in
a regular fashion over a long period of time, if they become predictable,
they lose their value.
are a type of reward that we cannot avoid. We know that grades
are very important, even excessively important for some students.
Grades are seen as the key that opens the door to opportunity.
Our students sometimes feel that we can deny them opportunities to advance
because we have the power to give them low grades. Think of the
student who is ready argue for a higher grade on an assignment with
total lack of concern about understanding why the grade was so low in
the first place. In an ideal world, we might wish to get rid of
grades altogether. We've all known students who only care
about the grades. Having taught for years in an adult education
setting, I have experienced the joy of teaching without the necessity
of giving grades. And I can attest that the students learned just
as much as if not more than students who get graded. Thomas Armstrong
(1998) cites research by Krippner in 1967, Amabile in 1979, and Hohn
in 1993 that "demonstrates that creativity
cannot fully flourish in an atmosphere in which students feel they are
being evaluated, judged, or tested." (p. 63). Therefore,
"the genial classroom avoids as much as possible the use of grades and
standardized testing based on 'norms' to which every student must be
compared. This sort of ranking system ignores the intrinsic genius
of every student, seeking rather to lift some students up to elite status
and to demote others to an inferior position." p. (63) Obviously,
we need to give grades, and we need to help students understand how
to get good grades. But at the same time we need to help students
recognize the intrinsic joy of learning and achieving.
FOR DEALING WITH NEGATIVE EMOTIONS
Although many factors external to the learning environment play
a contributing role in negative emotions, we have seen that there is
much within our schools that plays a role as well. So, even though we
can't deal with external factors, we do have a responsibility to make
our classes as emotionally safe as possible so that learning can take
place. Because the negative emotions just outlined have similar root
causes, the strategies that we'll suggest below are effective in dealing
with most of them. Jensen reminded us at the How the Brain Learns Conference
(2001) that while beliefs about ability to
learn can affect learning, those beliefs can be changed.
We teachers play a significant role in changing those negative beliefs.
First of all, we
need to take a careful look at the physical environment of our learning
spaces. If a classroom is overcrowded, too noisy, too hot or too
disorganized, it can create a sense of threat for some of our students.
We need to be aware of the physical needs of students for a break, deep
breathing, quiet walks, laughter, or change of activity can help reduce
stress. The section Creating
a Safe Physical Environment provides many practical suggestions
to provide a safe physical environment, which in turn will enhance the
emotional environment of the classroom. We also need to develop a safe
social environment, one in which put-downs and sarcasm are simply not
tolerated, one in which students are mutually supportive and caring.
The section Creating a Safe Social Environment
provides ideas on building a strong, supportive community in the classroom,
which in turn also enhances the emotional environment.
In order to help
students with negative emotions, we must provide
an environment in which they can begin to reshape negative self images
and believe in themselves. Sousa (2000) says "the learner must
believe that participating in the learning situation will produce new
successes rather than repeat past failures." (p. 56) The Caines
(1994) use the term "relaxed alertness"
to describe a safe learning environment: "To maximize learning,
we need to establish an environment that allows for safe risk taking.
In essence, we need to eliminate pervasive or continuous threat. The
sense of safety that welcomes appropriate risks is one part of what
we mean by relaxation." (p. 141) As we read about the factors above
that can de-motivate, we can resolve to avoid any behaviors or activities
that bring out negative emotions. But beyond avoiding the negatives,
there is a long list of things we can do to positively influence the
Teachers can build-up students with weak academic self-images by
taking advantage of opportunities to influence a student's self perception.
Words of encouragement, affirmations, acknowledging successes, celebration,
providing feedback and teaching self-feedback are ways
we can accomplish this."The role of feedback in self-evaluation is further
illustrated in a 1995 study by Waung and colleagues. This study
found that students who rated high in self-satisfaction
and academic performance tended to raise their goals and expectations
when receiving supportive feedback after committing errors.
Conversely, students rated low in self-esteem were found to lower
their goals after receiving negative feedback." (Jensen &
Dabney, 2000, p. 176) When feedback is concrete and specific, self-esteem
rises. For example, I might say, "You improved your use of periods
and commas in this essay. You only had one mistake." Or I might
say to a student, "You have written a good paper, but you have many
spelling mistakes. Try using spell check whenever you write and
keep a spelling journal of the words you misspell." This comment
is much more helpful than simply saying "Poor spelling." Such
praise compares the student to him or herself, not to others and notices
improvement that has been made, no matter how small. Giving students
positive feedback is essential to building up self-esteem and motivation.
Once students begin to experience some success, they have tools to fight
negative messages from the past. Our goal is to get students eventually
to provide their own positive self-feedback.
As teachers, we must expect success. Some teachers like to
begin the semester by intimidating their students. They may say, "This
course is very demanding. I don't expect most of you to succeed. If
you're not prepared to work as you've never worked before, you might
as well drop the class now." (I personally don't know any teachers
who start the semester this way, but I've heard tales that such things
might happen.) Students who come into our classes with high levels of
anxiety about the course don't benefit at all from hearing such admonitions.
Rather, we could say something like, "This course will be challenging.
But I also know that this course will be interesting and fun, so I am
confident that each student in this class will succeed." Beyond
communicating the expectation of success in a general way, we need to
communicate to them when they are successful. Cross says, "The
best way to lead students to expect success of themselves is to show
them that they are succeeding through their own efforts."
(p 14) One way to do this is to make sure that assignments and
assessment criteria are clear. Students need to have a clear understanding
of what they have to do to be successful.
But can we sincerely
expect that every student in our classes will succeed? We most definitely
can. That's what our model is all about. As we
learn to value our unique learners, create learning-centered environments
and help students to construct meaning, our students will succeed. If
we don't truly believe in our students' ability to be successful, all
of our lofty speech will simply be empty words.
about success need to be supported by clear expectations for individual
assignments. Assignments should have clearly stated
objectives, instructions, and assessment guidelines. I often
ask my students to assign a grade to their assignments before they hand
them in. When they receive their grade from me along with the feedback
that I give, they begin to understand better where they might have failed
to meet the expectations of a particular assignment. When students fall
short of stated expectations, we need to suggest small, concrete steps
that can lead a student to improvement. Giving students a chance to
try again and demonstrate improvement can also reduce the pressure associated
also need to have an appropriate degree of challenge,
which may be different for each student. This means we need to
know our students well, and we also need to know our content well.
For some students, we may need to divide larger tasks into smaller ones
so that they can experience small successes along the way to accomplishing
a major project. When we break down a larger research project into smaller
stages such as developing a proposal, writing an outline, and creating
a list of resources, we can give feedback throughout the entire process,
we give students a much greater chance for success than if we simply
said the final project is due one week before the end of the semester.
as unique individuals is not an easy task, especially when we approach
teaching from more traditional models. Yet the bottom line is that we
need to do that if we want to provide a safe emotional learning environment.
Carol Ann Tomlinson (1999) provides a good model for us in her book
The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners.
Ways this can be accomplished, Tomlinson (1998) suggests, include
presenting material in a variety of ways, giving students choices about
assignments, and presenting learning options at varying degrees of difficulty.
In other words, we need to move away from the notion that one size fits
read a brief description of the differentiated classroom as described
When I feel overwhelmed
with my own expectation to respond appropriately to every student, I
remind myself of one of the best models of education ever invented:
the family. There's no doubt that the children in a family are each
unique, but parents do succeed, for the most part, in relating to each
child in appropriate ways. So I tell myself that my classes are just
Although we must give grades, there are ways we can reduce anxiety
about grades. The types of assignments that we give can make a difference.
For example, projects, portfolios, and performances
that require a demonstration of many different skills, especially when
they are guided step by step, can emphasize what has been learned.
Because these are complex tasks, the product is graded as a whole, rather
than discreet items as in multiple choice or short answer tests.
Another way to reduce the threat of grades is to allow students to re-do
assignments until they achieve the grade they desire. I divide
the semester into 4 modules. During each module, students may
re-do all assignments as often as they wish until the end of the module.
I encourage them to submit a first attempt early so that they have time
to re-do it. By setting up some deadlines, I succeed in managing
both my and the students' workloads so that not all assignments are
handed in the last week of the course. Reflection assignments
are another way to reduce concerns about the grade. When my students
complete an assignment, I ask them to write a short reflection telling
me what they learned and how they feel about their learning. Finally,
as much as possible, I try to make assignments relevant to my students'
interests. When assignments are relevant, students are much more willing
to invest time and effort into a quality product rather than
simply meeting minimum requirements for a grade. No teacher likes to
be asked, "Why do we need to learn this?" If we can help the students
to buy into the learning by relating it to their past experiences, it
will not be so threatening or stressful for them. The section on Constructing
Meaning offers many helpful ideas in this regard.
is another important way to reduce threat, anxiety and stress.
Jensen and Dabney (2000) report on studies on
both monkeys and humans by Platt and Glimcher in 1999 that show that
there is a direct relationship between motivation and self-determination.
When given options, both the monkeys and humans made choices based on
what benefited them most. Another study done by Bechara and others
showed that the brain's pre-frontal cortex,
which is responsible for for higher order thinking, responds positively
when choices are given. Jensen
(1998) says excessive control by teachers reduces learning: "If
students are to be predominately self-motivated, they must be given
the opportunity to focus on their own areas of interest and to participate
in activities they find interesting." (p. 118) Thomas Armstrong
(1998), in Awakening Genius in the Classroom, says that choice
is important for bringing out the best in our students. "Students
who aren't given significant choices about what they can learn or how
they are able to learn it soon either give in and adapt, or give up
and tune out." (p. 61) Armstrong points out that freedom to choose
does not mean that students can do anything they want. Choices
need to be limited and fit into the course objectives. "The important
point is that students feel empowered when they make choices."
(p 61) In the section on Valuing the
Unique Learner, we have seen how students have different
intelligences. Allowing them to demonstrate their understanding
of core concepts using their preferred intelligences can do much to
reduce threat and anxiety. For example, if a student is allowed
to act out or draw his response to an analytical question when these
are preferred intelligences, not only is it less stressful for the student,
but the answer may be much more indicative of what the student actually
knows. Armstrong also argues that
students need to be allowed to explore subjects in an open-ended way,
without the necessity of reaching a final product.
overarching instructional metaphor that rules all too many classrooms
is of an arrow moving horizontally across space from the left to the
right (or perhaps ascending like a corporate graph depicting rising
profits). Real learning--the learning of geniuses--is not at
all like that. It's characterized by multiple arrows moving
in many different directions. To study the progress of the work
of the acknowledged geniuses of our culture reveals, in fact, many
dead-ends, stagnations, resignations, cross-outs, and regressions,
along with the bursts of insight and the incremental progressions
that moved them along. (Armstrong, 1998, p. 62)
Perhaps we could
encourage this type of open-ended exploration by granting extra credit
for "off-the-wall" assignments that display a sense of creativity
There are other
ways to provide choices. Possibilities include choices with regard to
content, timing, work partners, projects, process environment, or resources.
We can try to make assignments more relevant by allowing students to
relate them to family, neighborhood, city, life stages, love, and health.
Finally, having students design their own assessment tools can increase
motivation. Lisa has had her students complete a grading rubric
for their own essays and then use that rubric to assess their own writing.
the Perception of Value of Learning
As was stated above, Cross (2001) suggests
that the value students attribute to learning influences motivation.
We may need to encourage students to reflect on the value of learning
activities in our classroom, especially when such activities are not
eagerly anticipated. She outlines four ways learning can be valued:
value--we try something new and challenging just for
the satisfaction of being able to do it. Learning to kayak is
example in my life.
pleasure that comes from the task itself. Reading does this
for me. I simply enjoy exposing myself to new ideas.
value--the way a task helps to achieve a particular
goal. Hopefully reading this monograph has utility value because
it helps us to become better teachers
do we have to give up in order to achieve a particular goal.
While I may want to lose weight, for example, am I willing to endure
the hunger pangs that are necessary to achieve my goal
not everything we do in class will have intrinsic value can help students
recognize the need for certain activities for other reasons. Learning
how to punctuate correctly is not something most of us learned for its
intrinsic value, but it definitely has a utility value, which we note
immediately when sentences are punctuated incorrectly. Most of our students
know that there is a cost associated with their goal of getting an education,
but many fail to recognize that mastering new skills has a cost value.
So, it is useful to explicitly discuss the reasons for specific class
activities and assignments with our students. The discussion doesn't
need to take more than a minute or two of class time, but the deeper
understanding that students get is worth the time taken.
Intrinsic motivation is dependent upon "compelling goals, positive
beliefs, and productive emotions," according to Jensen
(1998, p. 67) We need to help students set realistic goals.
Goal setting is inextricably bound with our
cognitive belief systems and self concepts.
engage meaning and predict future learning because they involve our
goals, beliefs, biases, and expectancies. You can tap into this
process. When your students do goal setting, it is their emotions
that create the goal and their vested interest in achieving the goal.
To invoke these emotions, have students share with another person
why they want to reach their goals. (Jensen, 1998, p. 93)
goals should reflect what is important to the student. Encourage
students to begin setting realistic goals by first listing small personal
goals. For some, such a goal might be getting to class on time
or keeping a day planner to know when assignments are due.
Others may set a goal of making at least one contribution to each class
discussion or asking a question if necessary. Give feedback as
students work on specific goals. Periodically ask if a goal has
been accomplished and celebrate. As students master these short
term goals, they can be encouraged to form longer range goals:
turning their assignments in on time, completing readings before class,
visiting the Learning Center for help. Eventually, students should
be able to confidently make long term goals. At every step, we
need to provide feedback and celebrate successes. I find a really
useful technique to get students to communicate to me about their goals
is have them write reflection pieces. These reflections pieces
are not graded per se, but do count for a minimal amount of credit.
I always respond in writing the the reflection assignments. As
the sense of community among the students grows, they can share with
each other about their individual goals and become instrumental in supporting
one another in achieving those goals. So as teachers, we
can take steps to increase motivation.
Miliron, the president of the League for Innovation, speaking at the
Successful Teaching Conference in October of 2001 in Owego, shared with
us a strategy he uses to get students to focus on long-term goals.
He begins every class by asking students to answer this question, "Why
are you taking this course?" A typical answer might be that it
is required in my program. So then the answer is turned into another
why question, "Why is this course required in your program?" Students
might answer that it meets a general education requirement.
Again, the answer is turned into another why question, "Why does the
college have general education requirements?" The answer now requires
a bit more thought: because the college feels a general education
is important in addition to learning specific program related content.
Again, another why question, "Why does the college think general education
is important?" Because being well educated in this day and age
means that one understands certain fundamental concepts. And a
final, fifth why question, "Why is it important to understand certain
fundamental concepts?" The answer to this question then becomes
the answer to the first question: why are you taking this course.
This short exercise encourages students to look at the bigger picture
as they formulate their own personal goals, and solid personal goals
are big motivators.
(1999) offers these suggestions for helping students formulate and achieve
academic and personal goals:
of silence and wait time
Parker Palmer (1983) writing in To Know as we are Known offers
some an excellent suggestion for improving the emotional climate of
a learning experience. He recommends the use of silence.
Although silence can be threatening at first, and probably most threatening
for the teacher, once students understand the
use of silence in the class, it can be a powerful tool.
He recommends beginning each class with a period of silence. This
allows for a time of settling in or centering down. When asking
a question or whenever things seem to be confused, allowing a period
of silence can help students to sort through their own thoughts and
emotions. When a handful of students seem to dominate a class
and others seem to be reluctant to participate, one can limit each student
to speaking two times only during the class. Allowing time for
all students to think before anyone responds can also encourage those
who may feel threatened to gather their thoughts before speaking.
use of wait time is a less drastic approach to ease the sense of threat.
Very early in my teaching career a mentor taught me the importance
of allowing my students enough time to formulate answers before jumping
in to supply one. So often I focus on passing on information that I
forget the students' need to process information. We remember in the
brain function model that retrieving information from long-term
storage can require some time, especially if the neural
connections are not strong. Robin Fogarty (1997) points out that waiting
three to ten seconds, which can appear as an almost interminable silence
to an anxious teacher, encourages higher level thinking and more thoughtful
answers. She suggests the following to use wait time most productively,
thereby reducing stress, anxiety and the sense of threat:
at least three seconds after asking a question before letting a student
begin a response. ...
at least three seconds after any response before continuing the question
or asking a new one. The second wait-time recognizes the possibility
that the student may wish to elaborate on the initial response and
also gives other students an opportunity to see whether they agree
or disagree and why.
verbal signals, positive or negative, and leading phrases such as
"Isn't it true that..." when asking questions.
mimicry, that is, repeating a response the student has just made.
in the case of ESOL students, repeating back what a student has
just said is a useful tool. It can be a way of reinforcing the student
by indicating that the answer was comprehensible. Even in such situations
though, when it is clear that everyone in the class has understood
the comments of a foreign student, repeating the answer can make
the student unsure that the response was comprehensible.
verbal rewards and negative sanctions such as ok, fine, good, right,
yes,but.. Such comments can stifle on-going discussion.
Ask "what else" to elicit multiple answers (p. 85)
We can experience both positive and negative emotions that vary
from moment. These more fleeting emotions can also either positively
or negatively impact learning. Although I have been aware of the changeability
of my students' emotions since I started teaching, it was not until
I attended Jensen's How the Brain Learns Conference that I realized
I could do more than simply ignore such emotions in my classes, especially
when they were negative. We can all visualize the student who is sulking
in the back of the room, remaining aloof and unengaged. We see
other students with glazed over eyes, obviously bored or tired.
Sometimes students may seem hostile or even opening aggressive.
Because such behaviors don't last long, we may wish to disregard them.
Jensen (2000a) calls such behaviors emotional states.
impact student behavior by creating distinct mind-body
states. A state is an exact frozen moment composed
of a specific posture, breathing rate, and chemical balance in the
body. The presence or absence of norephinephrine,
dopamine, and dozens
of other chemicals dramatically alter a person's frame of mind and
body. How important are states to us? They are all that we have: They
are our feelings, desires, memories, and motivations. We are driven
by our emotions. Everything we do is motivated by them. When your
students buy a new pair of Nikes, they are not likely in need
of new shoes, but are rather seeking more confidence and popularity.
A state change is what their [sic] after! ... Those who help their
students feel good about themselves through learning success, quality
friendships, and celebrations are doing the very things the learning
brain craves. (Jensen, 2000a, p. 205)
are mind/body/emotions that last for micro moments or longer. They are
not moods which last for hours and cannot easily be changed. Negative
emotional states include fear, anxiety, boredom, apathy, frustration
and confusion, while positive emotional states include anticipation,
curiosity, self-convincing, excitement, celebration, and enlightenment.
(Jensen, 2000a, p. 133) Can we do anything about these emotional states?
Jensen would say, "If you don't manage
the state, you can't manage the learning." (Conference)
He observes that intelligent people control their own emotional states
continuously. (Unfortunately, sometimes such control can permanently
blunt certain feelings entirely.) But many individuals have a hard time
controlling their states as evidenced by the fact that they act out
in inappropriate ways. So what can we as teachers do to change negative
emotional states into positive ones? When confusion or anxiety come
to the surface, a
restore a sense of order. We don't make as much use of rituals
in our classes as in the lower levels of education. Examples of a ritual
that could be used in our classes include a walk/pair/share activity,
a stand and applaud yourself activity, or even just a quick few moments
of stretching and moving to lively music. Some teachers may feel comfortable
instituting a class cheer or chant or even a theme song. Rituals are
useful for either preventing a problem or solving a problem, simply
because they are highly predictable. They leave students in a positive
state. Movement is a very helpful intervention. When we notice a student
sitting in the back of the room, unengaged and defiant, having all of
the students get up and move to lively music can change that person's
state. In the section on creating a safe physical environment, we saw
the importance of movement for increasing blood flow to the brain. The
change in chemical balance changes the emotional state--it's that simple.
I must admit that at first I thought doing such things in my classes
would be manipulative, but I've found that they do in fact work.
These are things
Jensen suggests doing to move students from a negative emotional state
to a positive one:
- Change the activity
from individual to group work, or vice versa. Either intensify or
reduce learner involvement.
- Change the environment
by turning the lights on or off, opening a window or turning on a
fan, having students face a different part of the room or change seats
- Incorporate sound
or visual images
- Change speakers.
If you've been doing the talking, give students a chance to talk to
- Provide chances
for students to make their own choices. Ask for their input.
- Engage multiple
As indicated above, some students may be the type of learner Gerald
Grow (1991) calls dependent learners.
Grow cites a definition by D. D. Pratt of dependent learners: "They
lack either relevant knowledge, skills, and experience or the motivation
and self-confidence to pursue educational goals."
(p. 129) Our job is to help such students become independent, self-directed
learners. Grow suggests there are 4 stages in moving students up the
ladder to self-direction from dependent, to interested, to involved
and finally to self-directed. Dependent learners, Grow suggests, benefit
from two possible approaches: coaching or insight. Students at this
level need an authority figure who is well organized, who presents clear
directions and expectations. They also need immediate and frequent,
task specific feedback. But students also need to begin acquiring insight
into themselves, who they are as learners and what they need to do to
improve. Teachers need to communicate to these students that they are
ultimately responsible for their own learning.
With coaching and
insight, students can move to stage two, that of demonstrating interest
in learning. Grow says, "Stage 2 teaching is what is known as 'good
teaching.'" (p. 131) Interested students see their teachers as
enthusiastic, inspiring and motivating and they interact more freely
with their teachers. Students are willing to do assignments, but they
still need clear direction. They also need to know how the assignments
will help them. To move students beyond this stage, teachers need to
help students to begin formulating their own goals. Although praise
is still important, teachers need to use it less. Instead, teachers
should start using encouragement, which helps to develop intrinsic motivation.
Stage three learners
are involved in their own learning. They recognize their own strengths
and weaknesses and they are willing to begin exploring new topics on
their own as long as they receive some guidance. Students at stage 3
benefit from learning about how they learn, that is, seeing themselves
in context and noting what they value in contrast to those around them
as well as valuing themselves. Students at this stage see themselves
as "future equals of the teacher." (p. 133) At this stage,
learning becomes more collaborative. Teachers and students both participate
in decision making, with the teacher serving as a guide or consultant
more than the storehouse of knowledge. Something to think about is that
"good teachers" are usually considered to be stage two teachers,
while "good learners" are stage 3. Somewhat of a disconnect,
I would say.
The final stage
is the self-directed learner.
This is the student who takes full responsibility
for his or her own learning. At this stage, the teacher serves
as a supporter, as one who supervises an internship or advises in a
dissertation. We do have students at the community college level who
fall into this stage, but they are rather the exception. For us, stage
3 learning is what we are aiming for, although we recognize that many
students begin their academic careers at stage one. In any given class,
though, we probably have students at various stages of being self-directed.
We need to remind ourselves to value each student, regardless of the
stage they are at.
Related to the notion
of self-directed learners is the concept of stages
of competency developed by educators in Connecticut's
Pomperaug Regional School District 15 (1996). I have used this in my
classes to help my students understand where they are not only in terms
of their progress in English, but also in terms of their progress in
have not yet mastered a skill, and they are unaware that they lack
competency. They might say, for example, "I don't know that I don't
know how to assess the quality of an essay." In fact, this thought
would not occur to them.
Competency--Students are developing a level of mastery,
but they are unconscious of abilities. They say,"I know a good essay
when I see one, but I can't explain exactly how I make that judgment."
Competency--Students are becoming aware of their strengths
and successes. They say, "I know a good essay when I see one, and
I can explain why it is good."
Noncompentency--Students focus more on their weaknesses.
They say,"I realize that I am not always sure that I have written
a good essay."
setting--Students can identify areas that need improvement.
They say, "My goal is to improve a specific aspect of my writing."
have the ability to plan and perform appropriately. They say, "I can
write a good essay."
always interesting to me to see where my students place themselves.
Unfortunately, some ESOL students place themselves at the noncompetency
stage because their self esteem is so low. I have to help them see that
they are really much further along than that. Others are satisfied when
they reach the conscious competency stage, not recognizing that they
do have weaknesses. I struggle to move them into the goal setting stage,
but this is where I really want them to be. I want them to know their
strengths and weaknesses and formulate appropriate and achievable goals.
When they get to this stage, I am confident that they will get to the
final stage sooner or later.
We've covered a
lot of ground in this section. Following is a list of things to remember to
provide a safe emotional environment.
- Ensure that learners
have the necessary resources and support to complete assignments.
- Provide clear
guidelines or models so that students can feel confident in their
own ability to complete assignments.
- Allow sufficient
time for students to complete learning assignments.
- Create a predictable
environment through the use of rituals. Rituals will be discussed
in the next section.
- Take care of
yourself so that you aren't a model of stressed behavior.
- Give students
thinking time before calling on them to speak out in class.
- Provide plenty
of positive feedback, celebrations including applause, high fives,
small pieces of candy, or music.
- Encourage open
discussion of stressful or threatening situations.
- Provide for a
variety of ways for students to express their fears and concerns both
in journals or group sharing of personal stories.
- Spend time on
stress management techniques if necessary, teaching techniques like
time management and deep breathing.
- Encourage students
to seek peer or professional support when necessary.
- Encourage students
to engage in physical exercise.
- Help students
know what they should focus attention on. A stressed student
may be overwhelmed by the amount of information that must be processed.
By directly pointing out what students should focus on, we can reduce
stress. There is nothing to be gained by playing guessing games
with the students, especially if it only increases the level of stress.
deal with threats from outside the classroom, provide transition time
for students to allow them to shift gears. For example, begin the
class with a short time of physical stretching, a game, a walk,
a discussion, journal writing, or silence.
our own behaviors as teachers to avoid embarrassing students, finger
pointing, or public criticism. Listen carefully.
deal with learned helplessness, help students see connections between
actions and outcomes. Give choices. Break larger assignments
into smaller sections. Give frequent feedback.
a love of learning and enthusiasm for the field.
role plays, work in small groups and change groups frequently.
games that encourage risk taking.
good use of small group work.
- Create a mindset
for acquisition by having students recall a positive learning experience.
- Respect the uniqueness
of every learner.
This is a lengthy
list, so it is important to remember that we cannot achieve all of
this immediately. Each semester, we can pick one or two goals to work
on and gradually improve the overall emotional climate of our classrooms.
Once we have created a safe emotional environment, our next step is
to learn ways to create an enriched emotional environment.
to the next section, Creating an ENRICHED EMOTIONAL Environment