Image: school classroom, 1905
Many years ago, I was an undergraduate sitting in a large amphitheater at Boston University, waiting for my new psychology class to begin. The professor, Catherine Caldwell-Harris, bustled in and took the stage. She was younger than most of my other professors, and had a great deal of energy — it was infectious and almost dizzying. Students watched with wide eyes as she paced the stage, extolling the virtues of self-directed learning and passionately railing against doing work for work's sake.
Rather than give specific assignments, she said that each of us would produce three projects — of our own design, on topics of our choice — that would become our "portfolio." Back then, I was one of those stick-in-the-mud students who just wanted to know what I had to do to get my A, so naturally I found the idea of doing three … somethings … to be worryingly amorphous. I fretted for a while, and then got to work.
I honestly don't recall what two of my projects were, but the third lit a fire in me. I decided to do a cross-cultural inventory of different methods of parental discipline, and presented my results at one of the poster sessions that my professor had set up. I'd found surprisingly little research on my topic that considered many cultures at once, and so was driven deep into the anthropology stacks at the campus library, blowing dust off musty primary source accounts from various isolated cultures. I spent many late nights poring over those accounts, astounded by the diversity in human behavior. The experience was one of the highlights of my undergraduate career.
Why? Because my professor had created an assignment that: (a) gave students control (I could study almost any topic, in whatever format I wanted); and (b) concerned something we valued (I could choose topics that I found useful and interesting). That sort of classroom experience is the holy grail of teaching. It's what we want for our students — engrossed, self-directed learning that results in a shift in how they see the world.
Plenty of research explains why that approach is so effective. Reinhard Pekrun, an educational psychologist at the University of Munich, has studied college-student emotions for decades, and developed what he calls the "control-value theory of achievement emotions." He argues that emotions — anxiety, interest, boredom, enthusiasm — play a crucial role in learning, and that by maximizing both the control (autonomy) students have and the value (relevance) their activities and assignments have for their lives, you can generate in students the emotions that lead to successful learning.
His theory and others like it — on active learning, learning analytics, social learning, just to name a few — mark a growing focus across academe on engaging students and harnessing their emotions to improve learning.
That consensus has directed a spotlight on the ways in which traditional teaching may have failed marginalized students, and led to a range of solutions — such as avoiding microaggressions, issuing "trigger warnings" before covering graphic material, or designing courses that are accessible to all students, regardless of disability status.
And of course, those solutions have inspired a storm of dissent. Critics seem to assume that to focus on student engagement and emotions is to sacrifice rigor and challenge. That to care — to intentionally construct courses and assignments with the goal of exciting and motivating students, to concern ourselves with the emotional experiences of students in our classes — is to coddle.
Those criticisms, however, neglect the science of learning and rely on a false dichotomy. Let's consider each of those in turn.
First, the science. The process of learning requires (more or less sequentially): focused attention, motivation, effectively encoding new information into memory, and successful retrieval. Decades of research in psychology and neuroscience demonstrate that emotions possess the power to either enhance or disrupt all of those stages of learning.
In fact, emotions can effortlessly sweep aside any other mental process or priority, as anyone who has fallen in love or experienced true grief can attest. Emotions wield that influence because they likely evolved in the first place in order to motivate action (for example, driving us away from dangers like predators and contaminants and toward the arms of those who will nurture us and help us reproduce) and to tag information as important to remember for the future.
Attention, motivation, memory — those are the very ingredients of learning. To boost student performance, our mission is to activate positive emotions (interest, curiosity, and wonder) and minimize the negative ones (anxiety, frustration, and boredom).
As Mary Helen Immordino-Yang writes in her 2015 book of collected essays, Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: "When educators fail to appreciate the importance of students' emotions, they fail to appreciate a critical force in students' learning. One could argue, in fact, that they fail to appreciate the very reason that students learn at all."
Second, the false dichotomy. Underlying much of the backlash against things like trigger warnings is an assumption that we have to choose between rigor and care — between being intellectually demanding and emotionally sensitive.
Critics often characterize trigger warnings, at best, as the result of good intentions that nonetheless lead to the worsening of post-traumatic symptoms and at worst, as the sort of appeasement that allows students to opt out of assignments and class discussions willy-nilly, lest their precious feelings be hurt.
That depiction of trigger warnings is alien to those of us who actually use them. As Emily Willingham, a biologist and journalist, has characterized them, trigger warnings in practice function like a content advisory in front of your favorite crime procedural. Their purpose is to alert students who have had personal experience with the horrors you're about to cover (e.g., rape, childhood sexual abuse, suicide) that they may wish to activate their coping mechanisms so that they can regulate their emotions and avoid an affective drop in performance.
The use of trigger warnings doesn't restrict the material that faculty members share in the classroom but in fact enables them to assign content that provokes strong reactions and debate.
We can also see this false dichotomy at play when considering workload or difficulty level.
As a side effect of writing a book on pedagogy, I've gotten in the habit of collecting "who was your favorite teacher of all time?" stories from students. I can't think of a single instance in which the professor who got the nod was the type who showed too many movies in class and doled out easy As. Nor can I recall anyone naming someone who piled on heaps of excess work and droned on without a thought as to which topics in their field might enliven the interest of the classroom of 19-year-olds.
Rather, the instructors who touch our minds and hearts are — nearly without exception — the ones who are both challenging and endlessly fascinating. They push our limits and take great care to select and present material in intriguing ways.
I wrote about all of these topics in a book out this fall, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. In an early draft, I wrote: "It is our responsibility as practitioners of pedagogy to demonstrate to our students that we see their value — doing so will open them up to be curious and achieve just the type of deep learning we want for them."
My copyeditor responded: "You don't really mean the intrinsic 'value' of the students themselves, right? Is it not some other value you're addressing here, some aspect of the students' work? If so, please reword accordingly."
I did mean the value of the students themselves. While I'm not without gallows humor and can enjoy an "it's in the syllabus" joke as much as the next person, I also feel deeply that the best teaching arises in faculty-student relationships that are mutually respectful and that mutually honor the worth each side is bringing to the table.
In the final version of the book, that sentence now reads: "It is our responsibility as practitioners of pedagogy to demonstrate to our students that we see their value, that we perceive them as worthy partners in intellectual discourse."
We don't need to coddle. But we do need to care.