Why do student development and course climate matter for student learning?

Principle: Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.

The first part of this chapter focuses on American students between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two who are making the transition from high school and must learn to live independently from their parents. At the age of seventeen Italian students are still at school and live with their parents. The great majority of them keep living with their parents until graduation. The transition to independence is therefore much smoother than in USA and students get a lot of support from their families in charting a meaningful course of study, in deciding on jobs or graduate programs and also in facing social, emotional and practical issues. This has pros and cons. My opinion is that the process of developing autonomy is slower, and establishing personal identity might be sometime problematic. But purpose and integrity are generally gradually achieved in a quite robust way.

In any case, in both university and short training courses I never ever faced situations similar to those described in the stories at the beginning of this chapter.

Overall, it was interesting to learn something about student intellectual and social identity development, though more as a mother of two teen-agers than as a teacher.

Having said that…

During the ELIXIR-TtT course in Slovenia (28th-30th Nov 2016), during a discussion on how to engage disengaged students, one of the participants asked us (the instructors) what was the best way to react to provocative questions, for example on GMOs. My impulsive suggestion was that, in such cimcurstances, I would tend to stress the difference between information and opinions and that the role of the teacher during a class is to teach and facilitate learning, not to convince students about his/her opinions. If a student wants to discuss opinions, this would be fine, but in a separate context, for example during a “round table” or a seminar followed by a discussion, which the student would be welcome to organise.

After reading this chapter, I would have liked to have the chance to revise my answer about how to manage provocative questions.

Indeed, I realised that discussing opinions - especially different or even conflicting ones - may represent a great learning opportunity and may be used to motivate students.
The instructor should be enough prepared and behave as a solid orchestra leader who skilfully drives the discussion’s flow through prejudices, arguments, potential tensions, ending up in the land of a better and deeper knowledge.

Moreover, I learnt there are situations a teacher has to react, not just avoid the confrontation, even if it could be potentially harsh. For example if somebody says something (even non explicitly) racist or behaves in a sexist way.
So far, I didn’t reflect much on this because I hardly - if ever - faced this kind of situation. However, reading this chapter, I made an effort to remember whether I actually never faced this kind of situation. Well, I realised that, despite I never witnessed explicit unfair or agressive behaviours, I observed several times subtly unfair behaviours, both of students and sometimes even of teachers. Being subtle (like the expression of sterotypes may be), they are difficult to detect (and, therefore, to reject) immediately.

I was able to recognise a few situations where I witnessed unfair behaviours. I report two of them. In the first one I reacted, in the second one I was not ready to do it.

In some cases, unfair behaviours can be difficult to recognise because they come from people who are unaware of the fact they are saying something offensive. In this case, it is usually sufficient for the teacher to say the right word at the right moment to reset a fair climate.
It happened to me recently during a gym training class. In that case I was one of the trainees, not the trainer, but - as all people involved in teaching - I constantly observe how trainers/instructors/teachers work: you cannot imagine how much it is possible to learn from gym trainers if you observe them with the eye of an instructor. Well, there is a trainer - very good in many aspects but very young and not very much experienced - who usually proposes both a light and a hard version of most exercises. For example, sit-ups can be done holding a heavy barbell or not. In the past, for each new exercise, he described the hard version (e.g., sit-ups with barbell) and then he said: “if girls do prefer, they can do the same without barbell”. In saying this, he thought he had a caring attitude towards “girls” because he was not putting too much pressure on them. It goes without saying that “girls” always choose the hardest version of everything by nature :-) And they hate to be treated as they were wimp, so, after hearing this a number of times, I decided to say something jokingly and told him: “Are also man allowed to choose the soft version, should they prefer?”. This was sufficient to convey the needed message and the trainer now says: “Those who prefer, can do the exercise without barbell”.

The second example refers to a Train-The-Trainer course where I was an instructor and had two co-instructors. At some point, I explained that - from the point of view of an instructor - “stupid” questions should not exist, in the sense that every question tells us something about our students and, moreover, we can use it as a teaching occasion. Moreover, it is important to create a course climate where students feel free to ask any kind of questions (even “stupid” ones). A co-instructor, who was sitting, stood up (and this stressed the fact that he wanted to say something relevant) and said that he disagreed because we all know that “stupid” questions do actually exist. For example, very basic questions in advanced courses (where novices are not expected to sit in) or questions asked with the purpose of showing off, or questions from those who get distracted and ask clarification on things that had already been explained. “These questions are not only irritating but are also a waste of time for the rest of the class” - said this guy. Well, I didn’t react to what the co-instructor said because I was not prepared and because I didn’t recognise immediately how much I disagreed with this position and with the fact of presenting it as an assertion instead of a personal opinion to be discussed. Especially I didn’t dissociate myself from the “complicit” sentence “we all (“The Instructors”) know that stupid questions do actually exist”.

In future courses, I’m sure I will be much more aware of subtly unfair behaviours. Having a clear code of conduct (as SW/DC) and reading it at the beginning of a course, may be of great help. It should be used in every course and I mean to introduce it also in academic courses, perhaps by agreeing on it with the students (as suggested in the book).

The second part of the chapter - on course climate - is particularly relevant for instructors, because there are many things instructors can do to establish a positive and constructive course climate. In the long list of strategies suggested, I identified some that I already apply and some I will definitely implement in my courses. For example, I absolutely want to incorportate evidence into performance and grading criteria by using rubrics and asking students to read each other’s work. I will also encourage attributions focused on controllable causes such as “the more you practice, the more you learn” and “nothing is impossible, provided you work hard and in the right way”. I already do my best to make students feel recognised as individuals (I learn their names whenever it is possible, I talk with them individually as often as possible, during practicals, I sit next to them when they ask for help, etc), but I will introduce activities to promote recognition by peers.

I’ll also make an effort to establish and reinforce ground rules for interactions, with the specific purpose of involving students in the process of establishing them.

I reflected much on the importance of the first day of class to establish the course climate. In short training courses, I devote the first one/two hours to participants’ introduction, and to introduce myself, other instructors and the course. I also start courses with a short brainstorming or work in groups to encourage interactions and thus start creating a team made up of both participants and instructors. I want to introduce this approach also into academic courses and will stress the importance of the first day of class in both ELIXIR TtT courses and the TtT course we (ELIXIR Italy) are delivering to high school teachers.