How Learning Works (part 6 of 7)

by Cory Budischak
Energy Management Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

We’re in the home stretch of my synopsis of How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al. If you want to catch up on the previous posts in the series, check them out here. In part six of seven, I’ll be examining the next to the last principle offered in the book: Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning. As in previous posts, I’ll start by summarizing the authors’ analysis of this principle based on three questions. After that, I’ll address a fourth question of my own: How do I plan to incorporate this into my own instruction?

1. What are examples of learning issues that this principle can address?

These are the two examples from the book:

Yesterday in my Economics class, we were discussing an article about the cost of illegal immigration to the U.S. economy. The discussion was moving along at a brisk pace when one student, Gloria, began to intervene quite forcefully, saying the reading was biased and didn’t represent the situation accurately. Another student, Danielle, responded: Gloria, why do you always have to bring up race? Why can’t we just discuss the figures in the articles without getting so defensive?” A third student, Kayla, who has been pretty quiet up to this point in the semester, said that, as far as she was concerned, illegal immigrants should be arrested and deported, “end of story.” Her grandparents were Polish immigrants, she continued, and had come to the U.S. legally, worked hard, and made good lives for themselves, “but now this country is getting sucked dry by Mexican illegals who have no right to be here, and it’s just plain wrong.” At that point, the rest of the class got really quiet and I could see my three Hispanic students exchange furious, disbelieving looks. Annoyed, Gloria shot back: “Those ‘illegals’ you’re talking about include some people very close to me , and you don’t know anything about them.” The whole thing erupted in an angry back-and-forth, with Gloria calling Kayla entitled and racist and Kayla looking close to tears. I tried to regain control of the class by asking Gloria to try to depersonalize the discussion and focus on the central economic issues, but when we returned to the discussion I couldn’t get anyone to talk. Kayla and Gloria sat silently with their arms folded, looking down, and the rest of the class just looked uncomfortable. I know I didn’t handle this situation well, but I really wish my students were mature enough to talk about these issues without getting so emotional.


There’s been a lot of discussion in my department about how to get more female students into Electrical Engineering. This is something I believe is very important, so I’ve gone out of my way to support and encourage the women in my classes. I know engineering can be an intimidating environment for women, so I always try to provide extra help and guidance to female students when they’re working on problem sets in small groups. I’ve also avoided calling on women in class, because I didn’t want to put them on the spot. So you can see my frustration when a student reported to me a few weeks ago that one of my teaching assistants had made a blatantly derogatory comment during recitation about women in engineering. I’ve had a lot of problems with this TA, who has very strong opinions and a tendency to belittle people he doesn’t agree with, but I was particularly unhappy about this latest news. I chastised the TA, of course, and gave him a stern warning about future misconduct, but unfortunately the damage was already done: one female student in that recitation (who seemed particularly promising) has dropped the course and others have stopped speaking in class. I braced myself for complaints on the early course evaluations I collected last week, and some students did complain about the sexist TA, but what really baffled me was that they complained about me too! One student wrote that I “patronized” female students while another wrote that the class was “unfair to us guys” since I “demanded more from the men in the course.” I have no idea what to make of this and am beginning to think there’s simply no way to keep everyone happy.

2. What does research say about this principle?

Student development and course climate both contribute to a positive learning environment. The book discusses several different development models including intellectual, physical, and interpersonal development. The implications of this research are summed up by this quote from the book: “Even though some of us might wish to conceptualize our classrooms as culturally neutral or might choose to ignore the cultural dimensions, students cannot check their sociocultural identities at the door, nor can they instantly transcend their current level of development”

We see that the instructor in the first scenario above thinks that students can approach the course from a purely economic standpoint. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the socioeconomic background and the level of intellectual development shape the conversation. The research also shows that course climate can significantly influence student learning. This is seen in the second example above. The book lays out three implications of the research on course climate. First, learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum but is shaped by intellectual and socioemotional issues. Second, “many well-intentioned or seemingly inconsequential decisions can have unintended negative effects with regard to climate.” Third, instructors have a good deal of control on the climate of the course.

3. How can instructors teach with this principle in mind?

As in former posts, the book presents numerous strategies to teach with this principle in mind. Here is a list of them which are all headings in the book:

  • Make uncertainty safe
  • Resist a single right answer
  • Incorporate evidence into performance and grading criteria
  • Examine your assumptions about students
  • Be mindful of low-ability cues
  • Do not ask individuals to speak for an entire group
  • Reduce anonymity
  • Model inclusive language, behavior, and attitudes
  • Use multiple and diverse examples
  • Establish and reinforce ground rules for interaction
  • Make sure course content does not marginalize students
  • Use the syllabus and first day of class to establish the course climate
  • Set up processes to get feedback on the climate
  • Anticipate and prepare for potentially sensitive issues
  • Address tensions early
  • Turn discord and tension into a learning opportunity
  • Facilitate active listening

4. How do I plan to incorporate this into my instruction?

As I was reading the chapter, I realized that I was unfamiliar with much of the content in comparison to other chapters. I realized at some level that course climate and student development matter, but I’ve never reflected on it. The fact that I teach more technical courses makes it a little easier since I don’t run into many sensitive issues. However, one issue that we discuss in many of my classes is climate change. I think the advice of resisting a single right answer and incorporating evidence into my grading criteria will help when addressing this topic. In this way, I can accept students’ opinion on this subject, but force them to think critically and provide evidence.

What about you? How do you take into account the students’ development and foster a positive course climate? Let me know by commenting on this post below!

Join me next time when I examine principle #7: Goal-Directed Practice Coupled with Targeted Feedback Enhances the Quality of Students’ Learning.



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