Explore potential strategies.
Students are responding to course content and/or classroom dynamics in emotional and unproductive ways.
Students do not yet possess the maturity to contribute productively.
College students are still in the process of developing the intellectual and social maturity to deal with complex issues, so they may not be as prepared to deal with challenging topics as we would hope. Indeed, research on intellectual development shows that students’ thinking early in their college careers may be highly dualistic; in other words, they tend to view complex issues in terms of right and wrong. As students learn more about the world in general and their disciplines in particular, they tend to move into a stage of multiplicity, where they recognize a diversity of perspectives but come to think of all opinions as ultimately subjective. Over time, students move into the next stage in which they consider diverse perspectives on the same issue, weigh evidence, and formulate their own positions. Your students’ level of intellectual development influences how they react emotionally to course content and climate and consequently affects their engagement and learning. Students are also still developing in terms of social and emotional maturity, so they may not be fully aware of their own emotions or be able to express them appropriately or productively.
Education should challenge students’ beliefs and assumptions and push them out of their comfort zone. However, it is important for instructors to be aware of students’ current levels of intellectual and social development and set their expectations accordingly. For instance, instructors should not be surprised if students at the dualistic stage of intellectual development find ambiguity uncomfortable and frustrating or if students at the multiplicity stage view all perspectives as equally valid and take offense if asked to justify their opinions with evidence. Instructors should also not expect students to already have the language and social skills appropriate for debating contentious issues civilly and constructively. Recognizing that intellectual and social development are processes can help instructors develop learning opportunities that help students progress towards greater maturity and sophistication.
Instructors may need to provide support for students as they develop the intellectual and social maturity to deal with challenging issues productively. There are several ways to do this. One approach is to explain to students that the point of classroom discussions is not to determine a single right answer, but rather to explore different possibilities and sharpen their abilities to listen, reason, and articulate ideas. It is also helpful to explain that critical thinking involves embracing complexity rather than oversimplifying matters – and then reinforce the point by showing students how issues they think they understand are more complex and multifaceted. Other approaches include considering different viewpoints (including unpopular ones), giving assignments that allow for multiple correct solutions, asking students to generate alternative approaches to problem-solving, and requiring students to debate from a devil’s advocate position. It can also be helpful to give students appropriate language for expressing disagreement civilly and constructively. For example, it can help students to know that they can ask for more time to think when they are flustered. It is also helpful to provide discussion ground rules (pdf) to ensure a civil exchange of ideas.
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