Maintaining an Environment for Learning
November 21, 2016
by Michele DiPietro
Executive Director for Faculty Development, Recognition and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of Mathematics
and Esther Jordan
Director, Faculty Success and Associate Professor of Political Science
One of the basic principles of learning is that students’ emotions can influence both individual engagement and the course climate, either facilitating or hindering learning (Ambrose et al. 2010). As the last week of classes and final exams swiftly approach, we can expect heightened stress and anxiety levels in our students, due to the usual end-of-semester pressures. This year in particular, we can also anticipate compounding effects of charged emotions and uncertainty due to the contentious national election as well as local transitions on campus. As a center for teaching and learning, we are committed to maintaining an inclusive and respectful environment for learning, a concern shared by university leadership. Yet, many faculty and students are unsure of how to respond when approached by others who want to share their reactions or when confronted with speech and behavior that threatens the learning environment.
At our center, we have heard from faculty who have been approached by students who want to celebrate or commiserate in private or in front of their peers. We have heard from faculty who have been asked for help, much more than usual, by students experiencing debilitating anxiety. We have heard from faculty who have witnessed hate speech or behaviors among their students. The following are some strategies and resources that may help.
- Before you decide how to respond, remind yourself that students are still developing
during the college years, intellectually, emotionally, morally, interculturally, and
in several other aspects. In any course you will likely see students along a range
of developmental stages (Patton et al. 2016). Less developed students might see the
world in stark contrasts of right and wrong, and not be ready to entertain other points
of view. Others might believe that stances on any kind of controversial issues are
just a matter of subjective opinions that do not need to be justified by data and
facts. And of course, more developed students might have a strong grasp of nuance
and the merits of contrasting perspectives. Given this range, some frustrating responses
are actually predictable.
- Plan ahead how you will respond to multiple scenarios. It is important to acknowledge
marginalizing statements and behaviors, but each of us must find the approach we feel
comfortable with. You may want to avoid difficult dialogues altogether or engage them
head on. There is a range of responses that can support learning in our classes. Huston
and DiPietro (2007) analyzed a range of instructor responses and found that even small
actions, such as a minute of silence in response to hate fliers on campus, can have
strong positive impact on our students.
- Of course, the situation is different if the offensive behaviors happen in your class.
It is perfectly fine to acknowledge a hostile statement with a response such as “ouch”
and move on. You may perhaps follow up later with a reminder of the KSU Nondiscrimination
Statement. Or, you may want to adapt your planned class activities to take time to
allow students to reflect on their reactions and develop a plan of action (which can
range from contacting a KSU counselor to volunteering for an advocacy or support group).
The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan (2016)
offers guidelines for these challenging scenarios.
- If you are comfortable confronting disrespectful and marginalizing statements directly,
by all means do, but be prepared. Lee Warren from Harvard (2000) provides a set of
principles to navigate hot moments in the classroom, and she shares an important insight
for disrespectful comments. Explain what the impact of such statements is. If there
are students in your course who are direct targets of offensive comments, attend to
them and to their feeling. And finally, protect the students who make unsophisticated
comments, not to spare their feelings but to ensure they can hear the feedback and
not shut down and foreclose further growth and development.
- If you choose to engage your students directly in a difficult dialogue, have a good
structure in place to support it. DiPietro & Huston (2007) found that discussions
about controversial topics were only 50% effective. Their efficacy depended on the
professor’s ability to manage the complex array of emotions that arise. Ground rules
are a great starting point to create that structure, and the Eberly Center for Teaching
Excellence offers some guidance for establishing them.
- Another reason why these discussions are challenging are the very words we use to have them. Language can be inclusive or divisive. Many students feel that unless they know the “right” words to use, they will be criticized and therefore prefer not to engage. If you sense that is the case, shift the conversation to the principles behind words, such as avoid stereotyping and focus on individuals rather than groups. Davis (1993) provides some ideas for engaging in an inclusive dialogue.
Finally, sometimes the best course of action is to connect your students to one of the many resources that KSU offers. Here are but a few that are particularly relevant to the issues addressed here:
- KSU Behavioral Response Team Red Flag Reporting
- KSU Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
- KSU Nondiscrimination Statement
- KSU Report Discrimination
- Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.S., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, (n.d.). Responding to Difficult Moments. The University of Michigan.
- Davis, B.G. (1993). Diversity and Complexity in the Classroom: Considerations of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender, in Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence (n.d.) Ground rules. Carnegie Mellon University.
- Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). “In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy,” To Improve the Academy, 25, 207-224.
- Patton, L., Renn, K., Guido, F., & Quaye, S. (2016) Student Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Warren, L. (2000). Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University.
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