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Tompkins Cortland Community College

Model A Model for the Creation of
Meaningful Community College Learning Experiences


Creating a

Avoiding Negative Emotions
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 safe.

Threat, 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. Funny clipart of man falling off of a cliff.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: Clipart of a nervous man.

  • fear of potential physical harm from teacher or other students
  • emotional threats, embarrassment, put-downs
  • demonstrated disrespect for self, culture, or social group
  • inadequate time to complete a task
  • lack of time for reflection and expansion
  • predetermined correct outcomes established by an external agent
  • unfamiliar work with little support for learning
  • lack of orderliness and coherence
  • physical and social isolation
  • unknown purpose, schedule, or agenda
  • lack of information about task, behavior expectations, or goals
  • punishments for failure, such as loss of privileges
  • competition and extrinsic rewards
  • perceived irrelevance and lack of personal meaning (p. 8)

Jensen (2000a) suggests some additional stressors:

  • being confronted with a problem we don't want to solve
  • not perceiving a solution to a problem
  • feeling the risk levels involved are unacceptable
  • having little or not control over circumstances
  • experience of repeated situations of intense prolonged stress

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 threatening.    

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:

    • being creative
    • seeing or hearing environmental clues
    • remembering and accessing prior learning
    • engaging in complex tasks, open-ended thinking and questioning
    • sorting to filter out unimportant data
    • planning and mentally rehearsing
    • detecting patterns
    • communicating effectively
    • engaging 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
Ongoing threat, 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 learned helplessness. 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 college population.

The 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 life
  • 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 relationships

He also gives us a list of symptoms of learned helplessness:

    • not caring what happens
    • giving up before starting; or sabotaging positive outcomes
    • motivational and emotional deficits; depression, anxiety
    • not acting upon a request; or not following directions
    • increased attraction to hostile humor
    • cognitive impairment
    • a belief that the outcome of an event is independent of input
    • passivity instead of activity
    • self-imposed limitations that exacerbate passivity (p 259)

Crystal Kuykendall (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.

80% 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. 

Again, strategies will be given below to deal with this type of problem.


Poor Motivation
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 can de-motivate:

    • coercion, control, and motivation
    • weak, critical, or negatively competitive relationships
    • infrequent or vague feedback
    • racism or sexism, or prejudice of any kind
    • outcome-based education (unless learners help generate the outcomes)
    • inconsistent policies and rules
    • top-down management and policy-making
    • repetitive, rote learning
    • inappropriate or limited learning styles
    • sarcasm, put-downs, and criticism
    • the perception of irrelevant content
    • boring, single-media presentation
    • reward systems of any kind
    • teaching in just one or two of the multiple intelligences
    • systems that limit personal goal achievement
    • responsibility without authority (pp. 258-259)

I would guess that most of us would have to plead guilty on at least one, if not several counts here.

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.

Cross 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. 


Rewards (i.e. Grades) as De-Motivators
At 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.

Clipart of a boy with an A+ paper.Grades 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. 


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 emotional environment.


Positive Feedback
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 Clipart of man looking a paper with a blank word balloon above the paper.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 errorsConversely, 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.


Clear Expectations
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.

Clear expectations 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 with grades.

Assignments 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.

Treating students 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 all.

To read a brief description of the differentiated classroom as described by Tomlinson, click here.

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 big families.


Reducing Focus on Grades
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.


Giving Choices
Choice 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. Clipart of a woman with a scale balancing yes and no.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.  

The 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 and curiosity.

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. 


Enhancing 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:

  • attainment 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.
  • intrinsic value--the pleasure that comes from the task itself.  Reading does this for me.  I simply enjoy exposing myself to new ideas.
  • utility 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
  • cost value --what 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

Understanding that 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.

Emotions 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) 

Further, the 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. Clipart of a person standing before a flight of stairs. 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.

Martha Kaufeldt (1999) offers these suggestions for helping students formulate and achieve academic and personal goals:

  • Set clear guidelines and expectations so that students can plan accordingly. Schedules with time lines make it easier for students to handle longer projects.
  • Help students to see the personal relevance of the assignment as well as its connection to the overall goals of the course
  • Help students develop the ability to do task analyses by providing benchmarks for intermediate stages of the assignment or by using rubrics to help students understand components of a task
  • Determine what resources students will need to complete the assignment. Suggest ways students can access resources for assignments.
  • Allow sufficient time for students to process the assignment so that they can attribute individual meaning to their work


Use 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.

Clipart of a person sitting on top of an hourglass.The 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:

  • Wait at least three seconds after asking a question before letting a student begin a response. ...
  • Wait 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.
  • Avoid verbal signals, positive or negative, and leading phrases such as "Isn't it true that..." when asking questions.
  • Eliminate mimicry, that is, repeating a response the student has just made.

However, 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.

  • Eliminate 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)


Managing Emotional States
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.

Emotions 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, vasopressin, testosterone, serotonin, progesterone, 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)

Emotional states 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 ritual can 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 each other
  • Provide chances for students to make their own choices. Ask for their input.
  • Engage multiple learning styles


Helping Learners Become Self-Directed
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 learning.

  • Unconscious Noncompetency--Students 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.
  • Unconscious 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."
  • Conscious 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."
  • Conscious Noncompentency--Students focus more on their weaknesses. They say,"I realize that I am not always sure that I have written a good essay."
  • Goal setting--Students can identify areas that need improvement. They say, "My goal is to improve a specific aspect of my writing."
  • Competency--Students have the ability to plan and perform appropriately. They say, "I can write a good essay."

It's 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.
  • To 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.
  • Monitor our own behaviors as teachers to avoid embarrassing students, finger pointing, or public criticism. Listen carefully.
  • To deal with learned helplessness, help students see connections between actions and outcomes. Give choices.  Break larger assignments into smaller sections.  Give frequent feedback.
  • Model a love of learning and enthusiasm for the field.
  • Do role plays, work in small groups and change groups frequently.
  • Play games that encourage risk taking.
  • Make 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.


Go to the next section, Creating an ENRICHED EMOTIONAL Environment


Learning-Centered Environment links:

Creating a Learning-Centered Environment--Introduction

Brain Function
Creating A Learning-Centered PHYSICAL Environment

Safe and Enriched

Creating A Learning-Centered EMOTIONAL Environment

Safe and Enriched

A couple.
Creating A Learning-Centered SOCIAL Environment

Safe and Enriched

The Model Introduction

Dialogue on Learning Homepage