The new book “The ABCs of How We Learn” gives 26 approaches that can help students learn. The book is based on a course given at Stanford University.
Here & Now‘s Eric Westervelt talks with the book’s co-author, Daniel Schwartz.
Book Excerpt: ‘The ABCs Of How We Learn’
By Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang and Kristen P. Blair
Belonging is the perception of being accepted, valued, and included. Belonging can help learning by increasing effort and decreasing negative distracting thoughts.
A student has recently begun to opt out of class, sinking down in his chair at the back of the room. One explanation is that he finds the class boring, or perhaps he is feigning disinterest to mask a lack of effort. While these certainly could be true, a very common problem is that the student feels like he does not belong. He may believe that he cannot participate or that “his kind” does not belong there. Amy Cuddy, a prominent professor of social psychology at Harvard, recounts the story of a student who never participated in her class and was in danger of failing (Cuddy, 2012). From the outside, it could appear that this student did not prepare for class or was simply unmotivated. Calling the student to her office to discuss the situation, the student said, “I’m not supposed to be here.” Cuddy, who herself almost quit graduate school because she felt like an imposter, recognized that the student lacked a feeling of belonging, and this was why she did not participate. This insight led to a productive way forward for the student. In this case, the challenge for the teacher was recognizing that belonging was the issue.
Belonging is one of our most fundamental needs. Everyone has experienced the joy of planning a group party and the sting of being left out of a conversation. Young or old, a person’s sense of belonging has powerful effects on learning. On the positive side, engendering a sense of belonging in a learning group (e.g., a math class) can bolster motivation and engagement, as well as persistence in the face of difficulties. On the negative side, highlighting that a person does not belong by pointing out stereotypes about gender or race can increase anxiety and depress learning and test performance. Fortunately, there are simple ways to increase people’s feelings that they belong and to mitigate destructive beliefs that they do not.
I. How Belonging Works
Learning is social. It takes place in social contexts, such as classrooms and workplaces. Even quietly reading a textbook is social. The text was written by someone and may present a society’s adopted view of the world, including subtle information about who are valued producers of knowledge in society. Additionally, the purpose for reading often includes social goals, such as doing well in school.
A characteristic of human affairs is the existence of social groups. These can range from families to nations to people who drive fast. Humans can construct social groups based on just about any attribute one might care to think of. Kraft Foods ran a successful ad campaign, ‘Are You Miracle Whip?’ which created social groups of people who love versus hate the condiment.
Membership in some social groups, like Miracle Whip lovers, is unlikely to shape one’s life outcomes. Membership in other groups, however, can confer broad material advantages, or disadvantages, to learning. Eliminating inequities between groups will require dramatic societal changes. In the meantime, it is also possible to work at the psychological level to ameliorate the negative and enhance the positive effects of group membership. This involves increasing people’s sense of belonging in a learning setting.
With social groups comes the question of whether one belongs to a group or not. Group membership is socially constructed, so it often depends on people’s attributions or beliefs. People attribute group memberships to themselves and to others. Attributing group membership is a form of identification. One way this occurs is through an individual’s self-identification—I am a basketball player. A second way this occurs is through other people’s attributions about one’s identity—you are a basketball player.
Sometimes people may not identify with a learning group. For instance, a person may believe he does not belong in college, despite attending. One can imagine a scenario in which this belief is reinforced by others, such as an unsupportive teacher. More subtly, one can also imagine a scenario in which the student is surrounded by supportive teachers who simply do not recognize that belonging could be an issue for this student. They never encountered the problem themselves and cannot recognize the student’s anxiety. What you don’t know can hurt others, too. Without support for a sense of belonging, there can be loss of engagement, anxiety, and avoidance.
A second major concern is more insidious and involves stereotypes. Sometimes there is a belief that being a member of one group excludes people from belonging to another group. For instance, let us imagine there is a group called “women,” and there is a group called, “good at math.” A woman wants to identify with and belong to both groups. Other people, however, may believe a person cannot belong to both the “women” group and the “good at math” group. (Perhaps the reader recalls a talking Barbie Doll that stated, “Math is hard.”) The attribution that women cannot do well in math causes stereotype threat. Even though the stereotype has no basis in fact, it can still cause the woman to dwell on whether she belongs to the group that does well in math. The anxiety can be conscious, or it may be diffuse and not explicitly recognized. In either case, it can be distracting and siphon cognitive resources, leading to poorer math performance and learning. Without the anxiety, the woman would do just fine. The negative social attribution causes the poor performance, not anything about the woman’s math abilities.
The triggers of stereotype threat can be subtle and hard to anticipate. In a classic study, Steele and Aronson (1995) found that simply asking African-American college students to indicate their race at the start of test booklet caused their performance to drop. Because stereotype threats are ubiquitous and often hard to identify, it can be difficult to remove all the triggers that can cause stereotype threat. In this situation, it may help to work at the level of people’s beliefs rather than exhaustively changing the environment (although that, too, is a good thing to do). One useful solution is to help people simply appreciate that they do belong.
Excerpted from the book THE ABCS OF HOW WE LEARN by Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, Kristen P. Blair. Copyright © 2016 by Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, Kristen P. Blair. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company.
Daniel L. Schwartz, dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education co-author of “The ABC’s of How We Learn: Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When To Use Them.” The Stanford Graduate School of Education tweets @StanfordEd.