Explore potential strategies.
Students are responding to course content and/or classroom dynamics in emotional and unproductive ways.
The course content inadvertently alienates or threatens students.
While some level of emotional engagement fosters student motivation, it is possible that significantly heightened emotions will interfere with students’ learning. For example, students may become upset and stop listening, withdraw from participation, or in extreme cases storm out of the classroom or drop the course. In addition to the climate that we establish in our classes, we should consider how the course content itself might prompt emotional reactions. Course content includes not only the readings and topics we select for a course, but also the examples and metaphors we use in class and the project topics we allow our students to choose. Controversial or provocative topics can elicit strong emotional responses and make students feel threatened or alienated, but so can the types of materials we choose to include or not include in the course. For example, a biology class that only mentions male biologists or a contemporary literature class that only includes literature by Caucasian writers can be interpreted as a statement about who belongs – and does not belong – in the field. For students developing their sense of identity, purpose, and competence, these subtle (and generally unintended) messages can influence their motivation to engage with the material or continue in the field.
Think about whether certain perspectives are systematically unrepresented in your course materials and, if so, what message that may send. For example, a course on family that focuses only on traditional families may communicate an unintended value judgment about students’ families that do not fit this mold. By the same token, a course on public policy that ignores rural populations might convey disregard for some students’ experiences that makes them feeling alienated. When making decisions about course content, it makes sense to consider how the choices you make about content can influence students emotionally and consequently affect their investment in the course. If there is a valid reason that the course content is not inclusive or that you are discouraging a student from pursuing a particular research topic, you should share it so that students understand the rationale behind your choices.
Instructors may make assumptions about their students’ backgrounds and characteristics that are not accurate. When instructors act on those assumptions, such as making statements that presume a shared political perspective or class background, students who do not share those characteristics may feel excluded, self-conscious, or defensive. Likewise, instructors who try to connect with their students by using pop cultural references or extremely idiomatic English might exclude international students or older students from the discussion. While it is difficult not to make some assumptions about students’ frames of reference, in the interests of creating a healthy course climate, instructors should consider whether their assumptions about students are accurate and try to make the metaphors, examples, and language that they use accessible to everyone. Instructors can also model inclusiveness by taking the time to explain idioms and cultural references for the benefit of non-native English speakers (or asking students to) and, when possible, using examples that are accessible regardless of sex, culture, socioeconomic status, age. Modeling inclusiveness can be a powerful learning experience for all students and increase the level of investment that students have in the course content.
If you know that certain topics in your course tend to elicit strong feelings--for example, abortion or capital punishment--talk with your students ahead of time about the emotional aspect of these topics. You can do this in a way that helps galvanize positive emotions—such as excitement and motivation—while making students aware of the need to monitor and reflect on their own emotional reactions. For example, you might say, “The next unit of this course on immigration invariably elicits strong opinions because it involves socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and other very personal aspects of identity. If you find yourself becoming upset or angry during discussions, I’d like you to reflect on what you are feeling and why so that we can consider these critical issues in a thoughtful, measured way.” You can also remind students that differences of opinion are healthy, give them language for expressing disagreement respectfully, encourage them to reason from evidence rather than emotion, and provide opportunities for them to write and reflect. Anticipating “hot” moments and preparing students for them can help students channel their emotional reactions in intellectually productive ways.
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