Obstacles to Student Learning

I’ve always thought that the principal goal of teaching–successful student learning–is a deceptively simple one. When one gets into the research about such topics as motivation, attention, cognitive load, and the like, it becomes painfully clear that successful student learning is actually a process with a lot of moving parts. Quite honestly, I get sometimes get intimidated when I think of how many different things have to go right in order for a class to be successful. 

Of the many factors that go into a successful student learning experience, some are out of our control: a student had to work late the night before, or is feeling ill, or the heat is on too high in the classroom and everyone’s drowsy. But there’s a good deal of the process that is firmly within our control. In particular, we can do a good bit to shape the climate in which our students will learn, and that matters a great deal. As the authors of How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching tell us, “learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum but in a course and classroom context where intellectual pursuits interface with socioemotional issues…we have a great deal of control over the climate we shape, and can leverage climate in the service of learning.” [ref]A copy of this fascinating book is available in the CETL Library. Just sayin’…[/ref] In other words, there may be things beyond our control which can interfere with student learning, but we can do quite a bit to mitigate their effects with careful attention to “leveraging climate in the service of learning.” And one of the most important ways in which we can do so is removing the obstacles to learning that can crop up for our students.

Let’s look at two of the most common climate-related obstacles to student learning that also relate to the larger issues of diversity and inclusion:

Microaggressions: Microaggressions, a term coined by the psychologist and researcher Derald Wing Sue, refers to “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” As Sue elaborates:

Microaggressions often times appear to be a compliment but contain a meta-communication or a hidden insult to the target groups in which it is delivered. People who engage in microaggressions are ordinary folks who experience themselves as good moral decent individuals.   Microaggressions occur because they’re outside the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator.

That’s the frustrating aspect of microaggressions: they are often unintentional. But for the student on the receiving end of them, intent doesn’t matter, but the effects do.  Those who are on the receiving end of microaggressions are burdened with additional stress, emotional labor, and cognitive load. College-level academics are hard enough without the additional burdens placed on students who have to defend their right to be here (Can I see your ID? The Library is for students only) or have additional burdens placed on them by instructors (It’s hard for women to do well in Calculus, but you’re doing good work!) or find out that they’re being regularly judged by their appearance (I’m surprised how well you speak English, for an international student). For students, the cumulative effects of microaggressions can range from individual health to larger trends in retention and persistence. But most essentially, dealing with microaggressions occupies enough cognitive bandwidth to interfere with learning, as Cia Verschelden notes in her book Bandwidth Recovery.

Stereotype Threat: As a recent text on this phenomenon describes it, “stereotype threat is defined as a situational predicament in which individuals are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their group. It is the resulting sense that one might be judged in terms of negative stereotypes about one’s group instead of on personal merit.” The term was coined to describe the results of research conducted by psychologists Claude Steele and Josh Aronson, which sought to explain the so-called “achievement gap” between Black and White students reflected in measures like standardized tests.

What Steele and Aronson hypothesized was that this discrepancy was not due to any individual, inherent characteristics, but rather structural inequalities that implicitly convinced some learners they were less likely to succeed than others. In experiments such as one where groups of Black students were given math exams, with one group receiving information beforehand about minorities being less successful in mathematics and the other group simply taking the exam, Steele and his colleagues were able to isolate what they came to call “stereotype threat” as an inhibitor of academic performance. The second group did significantly better on the exams, every time the experiment was run; after a series of further and different types of experiments to confirm their findings, Steele and his associates were able to demonstrate that simply being aware of a negative stereotype about one’s identity-group could be enough to limit performance, to turn the stereotype into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

In this manner, sets of implicit biases that are present throughout our society including higher education, can work to prevent our students from demonstrating the true extent of their learning. As educators, we should take these insights to heart as we consider our assignment design and class planning. When we communicate high expectations for our students, we need to make sure we’re sending that message consistently to all of them. Another important consideration is to frame feedback constructively, even if it’s critical: “I’m pointing all of these issues out because, judging from what I’ve seen you do, I know you can do this well also.” If we offer students positively-framed opportunities to be resilient and learn from adversity and failure, they will most likely take advantage of them.

Microaggressions and Stereotype Threat are just two of the obstacles that can hinder student learning, though they are two of the more pervasive and powerful of these obstacles. By paying close attention to our own biases and the climate of our classroom and its interactions, however, we can do much to mitigate or prevent their effects.

If you’re interested in learning more about how these phenomena can shape learning and classroom climate, consider attending the CETL Workshop on Microaggressions in Class and on Campus, which will be offered Thursday, October 11, at 4:00 PM in Rasmussen 217. We’d love to see you there!


Have a question? Looking for resources or information? Want to take advantage of the services CETL offers? Contact us by clicking here, emailing kgannon@grandview.edu or calling Kevin at 263-6102.

Find out about all our programming, including when and where sessions will be held, by visiting the Calendar page of our site.

Have a great week, and please enjoy this video of a puppy and an owl becoming friends:

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