Ever feel that your students don’t want to learn?
You know, the student that sits in the back row taking a nap during class.
The student that won’t stop talking to their neighbor – no matter how many stern glares you send their way.
The student that turns in homework late – or never – even though you’ve repeatedly mentioned that you’re open to giving extensions if students would just ask.
What if I told you those experiences might have more to do with a student’s self-identity and less to do with their lack of interest in your course. And that you have the power to help students develop a new sense of self.
What sets students up for failure?
The Growable team recently read Bandwidth Recovery by Cia Verschelden. The first 2/3rds of the book were tough, Cia’s writing style is great – but the content broke our hearts. Cia describes in detail the MANY ways students from marginalized groups suffer academically.
One idea that really stuck with me is how students develop a negative academic self-identity in response to identity threat.
‘One strategy non-majority and poor students use (sometime unconsciously) to decrease identity threat is to base their self-esteem on domains in which they can be successful and disidentify from domains in which they have failed or in which society expects them to fail.’
Verschelden, C. (2017). Bandwidth recovery: Helping students reclaim cognitive resources lost to poverty, racism, and social marginalization. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Yeah, I totally get that. If I have experiences that teach me I’m not good at a certain skill I will wrap that limitation into my sense of self. Young people especially are always trying to figure out who they are, where they excel, what they should avoid.
When you have negative academic experiences, your academic sense of self crashes. You fail a test. Your teacher gives critical feedback on your writing. Your experiment doesn’t go as planned. But what if societal stereotypes define your academic self before you even have a chance to have those experiences – positive or negative. Girls aren’t good at math. Black children aren’t smart. Poor students are lazy and forgetful.
So, not only are there external factors at play that negatively impact marginalized students. The external factors become internal factors that extend the negative impact.
Flip the self-identity script
Thankfully Cia also shares strategies for guiding students to develop a new sense of academic self. One idea I resonated with is a values affirmation exercise. And it’s super simple!
Provide students with a list of values – optimism, competition, humor – the longer the list the better (the book provides an excellent starting list on page 81, also available here). Instruct students to identify 10 values that resonate with them. Encourage students to add to the values list if they feel something is missing. Then students pick their top 3 values from the list of 10 that they feel are most important.
Students then use their top 3 values to write a letter to a classmate or the instructor explaining why these values are important to them, how these values guide their actions, and some examples of these values at play in their lives.
So simple! So why does it help?
Value affirmation exercise helps students see the value they bring to the classroom. It’s an asset-based approach! Writing the letter reminds students that their competitive drive or creative nature or tendency to create orderliness can be harnessed to help them succeed – both personally and academically.
Maybe the napping student realizes their value of teamwork means their late nights practicing intramurals interferes with their ability to be a good teammate in class activities. Or the chatty student finds a connection with their community value that leads them to allow their classmates to listen during class. Or the self-reliance value of the student that never submits their homework realizes their inability to ask for help is limiting their ability to further their self-reliance.
The added self-awareness is great; however, the real gains are seen when a student’s self-identity is impacted. When a student sees that despite the negative stereotypes, they are capable of academic success because of the values they are already living out in other areas of their life. The optimism they bring to personal relationships can help them succeed academically. We are valuing the individual talents and strengths of our students.
What am I going to do?
I teach a sophomore level engineering course covering engineering properties of biological materials. Basically, we practice scientifically describing naturally derived materials, like foods, seeds, and plants.
Defining engineering properties is often confusing for my students. Engineering properties are quantifiable (numbers must be involved) and inherent to the material. I use the concept of states vs traits to help describe the inherent part of the definition.
For example, temperature is not an engineering property. Yes, we use numbers to describe temperature (it’s currently 32 f while I’m writing this). However, it’s not always 32 F outside. Even if we add qualifiers like at a certain time in the morning on a given day with a certain amount of sunshine… it could be 12 F or 68 F.
The current temperature outside is a state. It’s a transitory description of the air outside of my house.
Properties are traits – something that is consistently true of a material. For example, the rate of change of temperature for a material is described by its heat capacity. Heat capacity describes the amount of thermal energy required to change the temperature by a given amount. This value is defined by the types of atoms and bonds that make up the material. Heat capacity is inherent to the material. Kinda like values are inherent to a person.
I plan to integrate the values affirmation exercise into the introduction of engineering properties in my course this fall. The connection to course content will benefit my students ability to understand engineering properties while improving their academic self-identity.
What are you going to do?
Is there a topic in your course or classroom that could be aligned with values? How can you weave in a bit of values affirmation into your normally scheduled content?
Share your ideas with us and let us know how it goes!
Note: Like many things, values affirmation exercises only work if you create a classroom environment that values growth and authenticity. Students will see right through you if you approach this activity without truly valuing your students as individuals.