I finished reading Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book The Spark of Learning several weeks ago but I’m still reflecting on it and finding all sorts of applications to my teaching. The book is intended to “energize the college classroom with the science of emotion.” More than this, however, the book is giving me a lens to review some recent challenges I’ve had with my classes and offers me some possible solutions for the upcoming semester.
In a lot of ways, last semester was “the best of times and the worst of times.” I partnered one of my classes with a local elementary school and my students developed instructional materials for use with the elementary students. The project itself is beneficial for my students. The elementary classroom provides an authentic context in which to work. Rather than studying instructional technology in the abstract, my students created and studied technology in real learning environments. Talking to the elementary teachers and administrators, the project was a real success. My students rose to the challenge and developed innovative instructional materials for use with the elementary classes.
While the district partners reacted very positively to the project, talking with my students would yield a very different perspective. While I haven’t received my student evaluations from last semester yet, I’m anticipating some low ratings. Since the project is really complex and (at times) messy, the students didn’t always react positively. Some students were stressed and anxious. Some were sullen and angry. Other students were emotionally detached from the process completely and did not appear invested in the class at all. During the semester, I had to navigate several tearful emotional breakdowns and had to intervene with quite a few group issues. Despite the successful project outcomes, it was a difficult semester for my students and for me.
In all honesty, this was one of the reasons that I sought out Dr. Cavanagh’s book. Since the students reacted so emotionally to the project, I felt a little more dedicated examination to the research on the connection between emotion and learning would be valuable. The book covers a lot of ground and I wrote a few weeks ago about crossover and how instructors’ emotions can impact the emotions (and learning) of students. While I don’t think crossover played much of a role in my students’ emotional responses to the project, another concept that Cavanagh presents clearly does. Control-value theory is “based on the premise that appraisals of control and values are central to the arousal of achievement emotions, including activity-related emotions such as enjoyment, frustration, and boredom experienced at learning, as well as outcome emotions such as joy, hope, pride, anxiety, hopelessness, shame, and anger relating to success or failure” (Pekrun, 2006). According to Cavanagh, students’ emotional responses to classroom activities are based on their assessment of two critical factors: control and value. In a classroom environment, students must “feel in control of the activities and outcomes that are important to them” and that “the activity or material represents meaning or worth.” Returning to my classroom project, while students might have seen the assignment as being valuable and having meaning to their future careers, they definitely didn’t feel in control. Because of the messiness of the assignment, students didn’t often know the next steps in the project. This lack of clarity (and control) fostered the negative reactions (stress, anger, detachment) that I witnessed during the class.
So, what am I going to do differently this semester? First off, I’m still planning to do the project. I think the students see the value in the assignment. The project has them working with real students in authentic classroom environments and I think my students see the value and relevancy of this experience. Ultimately, however, I need to change how they appraise their control over the assignment. I need to reduce some of the messiness and develop supports so students have more agency over their learning. I need to make my expectations clearer and be a better facilitator and guide through the assignment. Will these additions be enough to change how the students appraise their control and also how they perceive the project? I don’t know. But I’ll probably have a better idea in a few months. For now, I’m still studying Cavanagh’s book for ways to increase “the spark of learning.”
Cavanagh, S. R.(2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational psychology review, 18(4), 315-341.