education, higherEd, psychology

How much does it matter how students feel?

As I prepare my tenure portfolio, I am catching up on entering in my student evaluation data and comments into my big spreadsheet. While I don’t think student evaluations should serve as the only data by which to judge teachers, they are full of valuable information about teaching, as long as you are willing to read between the lines. For simple 15 minute reflections at the end of a semester, they are often rich with insight into how students perceive their own learning. I don’t think they are nearly as rich with data about how much students actually learned, but how the experience felt to them. Which leads me to the question in the title: if students mostly report their feelings about the class, how do these feelings relate to what and how much they learned? Like the answers to most questions about a complicated craft like teaching, my answer is that emotions do matter in the classroom, but probably not as much as you think, and it depends.

I think we can being by staking down the posts at either end of the spectrum and rejecting them. If a student hates their experience throughout and finds no meaning in it (“this was miserable, but it got me through to where I can study cool stuff”), then I would I would conclude that the course failed for that student. I see this as a possible outcome and one to be avoided. Learning is connected to emotions, and if a student disengages emotionally from a course, it is a problem. If we put our students through stress, tedium and horrible struggle, but then don’t help them feel rewarded (emotional and otherwise) at the end, students will continuously feel that school is a place to be endured, rather than engaged.

However, I think the other pole is equally toxic. If we conclude that no learning can take place unless students are perfectly comfortable, always engaged and having fun, we do a grave disservice to our students. As Dan Willingham reminds us in a chapter heading in his wonderful “Why Don’t Students Like School?” – “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers.” In other words, thinking is hard. If given the choice, we would rather avoid thinking. This is why, for example, this sentence, which requires you to keep a bit more in working memory, specifically devised as an example for the claim that thinking is hard, since I would never write this on purpose (ok maybe I would but I would edit it afterwards, probably) is harder to understand than the one that follows. When we avoid thinking, we save energy and get on with our lives. Unfortunately, if we spend all semester in a glorified focus group, always attendant to feelings and engagement and not to learning, the learning does not happen all by itself. Reminding students what they already know, and trying to boost their confidence does not teach them anything. As it turns out, it doesn’t even boost their self-esteem. I know that there are teachers who lead their students through emotional transformations, and I so seek to connect with students’ emotions, but I fear we can go too far in fostering student engagement and attention.

So, I am left somewhere in the middle. School is not entertainment, and sometimes steps in learning something are not enjoyable. But if students are entirely emotionally disengaged, then they probably aren’t learning either. As I try to balance the fun and the tedium, the struggle and the joy, I try to help my students use the fun to stay curious and dig deeper (“yes it’s amazing, but why does that illusion look that way? What does it mean about your eyes?”) and frame the struggle as necessary and productive. I make sports metaphors about running and lifting waits and “just getting your reps in.” But ultimately, sometimes the way that they frame their own learning is so powerful it can’t be overcome. In this way, the associated question is just as important “How important do students think their feelings are to their learning?” I think the answer to this question is that students drastically overestimate the importance of their own feelings on their learning, because they often interpret these feelings (of struggle, of discomfort, of failure) through incorrect theories of the mind.

Related to student attitudes on learning, a few comments jumped out at me recently, and reinforced to me how the myth of learning styles can have corrosive consequences. These comments inevitably begin with “I am an x learner.” Sometimes they seem positive, like “I am a visual learner, so I loved the videos and visual examples.” Other times they are negative “I prefer more discussion, so the lectures bored me” or “I prefer to learn through lecture, so the discussions didn’t work for me.”  But ultimately even the positive ones suggest the same underlying attitude. When met with challenge, they have thoughts with the same, tragic, logical form of  “I found this element challenging due to a stable preference or personality trait of mine, therefore I disengaged because there was nothing I could do.”

While some of my colleagues who are fans of progressive education could claim that this attitude is solely a consequence of the student-as-consumer mentality, in which a market model is supposed to honor every preference, no matter how trivial. But I think a second factor contributing to this disengagement with struggle is a vague egalitarianism which seeks to minimize the role of ability, but ends up backfiring. When we tell a student “Oh, don’t worry about memorizing that speech, you’re a visual learner try this instead,” we’re trying to help them find engagement, but just as often we’re helping them avoid struggle. We might be trying to avoid telling them that Johnny just has a better working memory than Billy and can memorize these things easier. But what we should be saying is this: “You might have to work a little harder, but you can still learn this just as well.” I know this isn’t exactly what the data say, but as a teacher I feel like it is better to frame ability as “time to practice to reach competence.”  We might each have a different pace in learning how to walk, talk, read and write, but (with the notable exception of certain disabilities) we can each reach competence in these tasks. We’d be far better off if more students believed the same thing about calculus and neuroscience.

So, in the end, I am happy with a few comments of disgruntled students, groaning that the course was too hard, or had too much reading. And my heart is warmed by the student who remarks “The tests are a bit hard, but I think that is how they should be” and “I liked the pass/fail grade style because it helps me learn without killing my grades.” But the most depressing comment is not the aggrieved student who feels cheated out of a few points and denigrates the whole course because of it, but the resigned one who says “class seemed good, but not for me, was useful for only certain kinds of learners.”