Objective: Although “we may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think” (Taylor as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p.170, italics in original citation).
Reflective: I have experienced first hand that I am a creature whose ability to think is directly impacted by how I feel. When I feel relaxed and excited (like when I am in a museum), I love to explore, check out everything and cram in as much knowledge as I can in one day, but when I’m stressed (like when I had to write university calculus exams), I get sweaty, my heart races, my mouth feels like I haven’t had anything to drink for about 3 days and I can’t think my way out of a wet paper bag.
What is going on? Why am I curious and ready to learn in one case and panicked and unable to learn (or think) in the other? Why does calculus still give me the shivers after 30 years (I have yet to take another calculus course) but every time I go to a city I want to check out the museum?
Interpretive: Barkley (2010) states: “despite higher education’s historical emphasis on the purely intellectual, many educators today recognize that the body, heart and mind are all involved in learning . . .” (p 33). Barkley (2010) goes on to state that “(h)ow students feel – about life, about themselves, about what the teachers are trying to teach them – plays a critical role in how they learn” (p 33, italics in original).
Why does how we feel play such an important part in learning?
In response to stimuli like pain, stress and paradoxically, pleasure, our nervous system sends out neurotransmitters known as endorphins, to bind with receptors that are associated with not only pain control but emotion and memory processing (Scheve, 2009). The majority of emotion and memory processing occurs in the limbic system which also “. . . controls the individual’s basic value system, enhances or suppresses the short-term memory . . . (and) determines how the brain will respond to all the information received” (Mackeracher as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p. 169).
Going back to my example, when I am in a relaxed, stimulating, non stressful environment like the museum, I feel happy, my brain releases endorphins, my limbic system decides oh ya, this feels good, I learn more and I remember more.
Noxious stress, however, has a very different effect on the limbic system. When we feel anxious or fearful, our limbic system gets over-stimulated and becomes incapable of processing and storing new information (Willis, 2014). Even the neural pathways to the pre-frontal cortex where higher order thinking like decision-making occurs (Prefrontal cortex, n.d.) are compromised. No wonder I can’t think my way out of a wet paper bag when I am stressed.
Feelings or emotions associated with learning can come from two different sources: “. . . the emotional climate in which learning occurs and the degree to which emotions are associated with the learning content” (Barkley, 2010 , p 35).
As an educator, I direct the environment in which the learning takes place. By creating a positive learning environment I can facilitate an emotional climate that will enable learning to happen. By being in a positive learning environment, students will feel good while they are learning and “ . . . a learning experience that connects with a memory of a positive learning experience will be embraced and seen as positive” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p. 170).
Decisional: As I waded into the readings about what entails facilitating a positive learning environment I began to realize that there is an almost overwhelming number of factors at play here. Here’s just a few:
- Respecting the adult learner (Knowles’ 6 main assumptions about adult learners);
- Ensuring a comfortable learning environment – it matters if the room is too hot!
- Providing an engaging and motivating climate for learning;
- Delivering a well-designed course.
In an attempt to condense some of the learning I gleaned from all of my readings, I compiled this table of strategies along with some rationale and a few classroom examples.
|6 Strategies for Creating a Positive Learning Environment|
|Allow for self-direction in learning
|Adult learners’ need to be respected for their right to chose how and what they want to learn. (Knowles assumption #1) Merriam & Bierema, (2014)
Autonomy has been identified as a key motivator (Merriam & Bierema, 2014).
|Have students complete a feedback form about the course – what they liked, what they didn’t like and what they would change after the first week.
Have a suggestion box outside your office or class.
Provide a choice of topics for assignments. Motivating our Students (n.d.)
Provide opportunities for enrichment and self-directed learning.
|Address the physical comforts of the students
Merriam & Bierema, (2014)
|Being uncomfortable isn’t going to help anyone learn.||Adjust lighting, heating, etc., as needed.
Encourage students to tell you if they are not comfortable
Provide breaks as needed – if students are looking bored, after an intensive learning session or when bathroom breaks are needed
|Respect your students! Make them feel valued for who they are and what they know.
|Fostering a climate of mutual respect will create a feeling of collaborative learning.
Happy brains release endorphins that make positive memories and more learning!
Experience is an integral part of an adult’s identity (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 50).
|Get to know your students’ names.
Be accessible to students – let them know how to reach you and what your hours of availability are.
Value student views and experiences and reward student contributions to the discussion.
Provide positive and timely feedback. Be clear about expectations and model what you value. Motivating our Students (n.d.)
Create a safe place for students to learn. Let them know that it’s ok to make mistakes.
Get to know your students and learn about their experiences.
With permission, share student exemplars with the class Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.)
|Learning needs to be relevant and have a purpose||Adults need to know the reason for learning something (Knowles assumption #6) (Merriam & Bierema, 2014)
Purpose has been identified as a key motivator (Merriam & Bierema, 2014)
Adults are more problem focused than subject centered in learning (Knowles assumption #4) Merriam & Bierema, (2014).
|Use the K-W- L strategy
Provide authentic learning activities for students i.e., engineering, medical or business case studies and/or problem based projects for students to work through.
Help students make connections between current learning and past and/or future learning. Motivating our Students (n.d.)
Teach a skill right before students need to use it Motivating our Students (n.d.)
|Foster a sense of community||When students feel that others value the learning they will too. Motivating our Students (n.d.)
“An adult accumulates a growing reservoir of experience, which is a rich resource for learning” (Knowles assumption #2 (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 47)
Communities of practice are built on participant experiences and provide the basis for learning Merriam & Bierema, 2014)
|Use online discussion forums not only for online course but for large classes where involvement in discussions may be challenging Motivating our Students (n.d.)
For online courses create online icebreaker activities where students can get to ‘meet’ one another
Use audio and video recording for online courses Motivating our Students (n.d.)
Create a facebook page (i.e., the VCC School of Instructor Education)
Facilitate, not dominate classroom discussions Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.)
|Deliver a well-designed course.
|Adults have high expectation of their learning
Providing a course that is appropriately challenging will encourage the desire for mastery which has been identified as a key motivator.(Merriam & Bierema, 2014)
|If possible, obtain an evaluation of teaching effectiveness i.e., TABS Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.)
Apply learning strategies that are proven to promote learning. (David-Lang, 2013)
Assess for evidence of learning, clarity and appropriate difficulty of learning intentions and success criteria David-Lang, 2013, p 12
Offer a variety of learning opportunities like group work, discussion forums, multimedia presentations, blogs, field trips, etc.
Read the cues of your students if they are bored or confused address the issue immediately Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.)
Be enthusiastic in your delivery of the material – enthusiasm is infectious!
“Provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know” Motivating our Students (n.d.) para 15
Bloom’s Taxonomy An Introduction to Bloom’s Taxonomy (n.d.) Centre for Teaching Excellence , University of Waterloo Retrieved from: https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/planning-courses-and-assignments/course-design/blooms-taxonomy
Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (n.d.) The Center for Teaching and Learning Division of Academic Affairs UNC Charlotte. Retrieved from: http://teaching.uncc.edu/learning-resources/articles-books/best-practice/goals-objectives/blooms-educational-objectives
Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques – A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
David-Lang, J. (2013) The Main Idea current education book summaries: Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, Hattie, J., 2012 retrieved from: http://www.tdschools.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/The+Main+Idea+-+Visible+Learning+for+Teachers+-+April+2013.pdf
Merriam, S.B. & Bierema, L.L. (2014) Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Motivating Our Students (n.d.) Centre for Teaching Excellence University of Waterloo. Retrieved from: https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/creating-positive-learning-environment/inclusivity-accessibility-and-motivation/motivating-our-students
Pre-frontal cortex (n.d.) Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefrontal_cortex
Scheve, T., (2009) “What are endorphins?” HowStuffWorks.com. Retrieved from: http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/endorphins.htm
Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.) Tomorrow’s Professors Mailing List Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/tomprof/posting.php?ID=368
Willis, J., (2014) The Neuroscience Behind Stress and Learning Edutopia. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/neuroscience-behind-stress-and-learning-judy-willis