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July 30, 2015

This month’s column is the final in my series about how we can apply and see in action the 7 principles of research-based pedagogy described in the excellent book How Learning Works, by Susan Ambrose, et al. Last time was metacognition. Before that came mastery, prior knowledge, practice and feedback, motivation, and knowledge organization. This month’s topic: student development and course climate, ch. 6 of the book.

Central to good pedagogy is the maxim that we teach not only content but also people. Our students will not learn effectively if they are unmotivated, if they lack sufficient prior knowledge, and if they are not self-reflective. But underlying all these factors are the crucial elements of student intellectual development and social identity. Who our students are, and where they are intellectually, has huge effects on how they learn and should be prime considerations in our approach to teaching and in our construction of the classroom environment, regardless of subject.

It is a truism to say that students are not only intellectual but also social beings. Yet this truism has a profound implication, particularly in classes composed primarily of “traditional college-age students” of Western backgrounds. Citing Pascarella & Terenzini, Ambrose et al. note research shows that “the social and emotional gains that students make during college are considerably greater than intellectual gains over the same span of time” (pp. 156–157). And students at all levels of study will possess widely varying degrees of intellectual, social, and emotional maturity — and the same person may have different levels of different kinds of maturity. One of my favorite factoids on this topic is that adolescents (whose brains aren’t yet fully developed in the domains of judgment and impulse control) take measurably longer than adults to answer the question “is it a good idea to set your brain on fire?”

A few principal psychological models — developed by Chickering, by Perry, and by Hardiman & Jackson — describe growth in these three kinds of maturity. The Chickering model of traditional-college-age student development outlines a rough chronological progression that begins with managing emotions, moves on to establishing identity, and culminates in developing key components of adulthood: competence in a variety of areas, autonomy, purpose, integrity, and mature relationships with others.

Perry’s model focuses on intellectual development. People begin in a state of childlike “duality”: everything is right or wrong, and if a teacher won’t tell me the answer, it’s because s/he’s being coy. After encountering enough situations where there is obviously no simple black-and-white answer, they move to “multiplicity”: everything is merely a matter of opinion and all opinions are equal. In higher education especially, the goal is to move students into a mindset first of “relativism”—some answers are better than others on the basis of evidence and argumentation—and finally to “commitment” to an answer as the best solution available, again based on evidence and argumentation. Baxter-Magolda and Belenky et al. identify some generally applicable gender patterns in progression through the stages of the Perry model.

Finally, Hardiman & Jackson trace “social identity development,” particularly with regard to race but also gender and sexuality. From the “naïve stage” of early childhood (where difference in appearance is not imbued with deeper value judgments), young people tend to move into uncritical acceptance of social norms. Eventually, those in a social minority develop a sense of resistance to prejudice and, finally, undergo a redefinition of their sense of self and group, as well as an integration into themselves of their redefined identity. During the resistance stage, members of minority groups may tend to immerse themselves in their own group or culture and in aggregate students of all backgrounds may tend towards “disintegration” between minority and non-minority groups.

Why is all this important? As Ambrose et al. put it, “students cannot check their sociocultural identities at the door, nor can they instantly transcend their current level of development” (pp. 169–170). We cannot ignore the larger context within which the art of teaching happens and we must actively accommodate our students’ diversity of backgrounds and development levels as we build our course climate.

Ambrose et al. identify four kinds of course climates: those that explicitly marginalize minority viewpoints and subjectivity, those that implicitly marginalize them, those that explicitly “centralize” a diversity of perspectives and experiences, and those that do so implicitly. An explicitly marginalizing course climate is one of overt discrimination. In (for example) a modern literature course, an implicitly marginalizing curriculum would restrict focus to the traditionally prescribed canon dominated by elite straight Christian men, while an explicitly centralizing curriculum would include readings and discussion of texts by persons of all races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations. An implicitly centralizing climate leaves the burden of voicing minority views on students from marginalized groups. Marginalizing climates tend to make students not in the dominant group feel excluded and silenced.

A centralizing climate requires extra care to achieve when teaching a language and literature like Latin or Greek whose survival has by and large depended on a canonization process controlled by elite men. Sulpicia and Sappho and Corinna don’t add up to many lines, and the latter two are, like many papyri and inscriptions with women’s or non-elite voices, very difficult texts for beginners and intermediates. One key tool here is supplementation: art, artifacts, and translated texts that offer alternative and diverse views can ameliorate the canonizing effects of the manuscript tradition.

Another way to avoid a marginalizing climate in Latin and Greek courses is to interrogate, rather than adopt, the ideologies that the texts we teach communicate implicitly and explicitly. Instead of plodding through a Greek textbook starring a lazy enslaved Xanthias and a pair of women valued only for physical attributes and not for intellect, one might call upon students to explore the hidden point of view of these characters and ask how the characters might feel about the way they are portrayed. (Or choose a different textbook.) Instead of being content with a slangy anti-gay epithet in English as an equivalent for cinaedus (in class or in a published translation), one might push students to research Roman constructions of sexuality and moderation.

Why is it important to build an explicitly centralizing course climate? In part because it is of fundamental importance for a students’ motivation that they perceive the classroom environment as supportive. In part also because less-inclusive classroom environments tend to include microinequities (cf. Hall & Sandler)—things that may not even reach the notice of the dominant group, like sexist language—which interfere with marginalized students’ learning experiences and can activate stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson).

Stereotype threat is a pernicious phenomenon whereby individuals with a non-dominant group identity are made to feel that that aspect of their identities affects their ability to perform the task at hand. For instance, putting the demographics section of a standardized test before the content questions has been shown to have a negative effect on the test scores of women and racial minorities, because at the moment of their test-taking they are asked to focus on a part of themselves that the dominant culture has stereotyped as intellectually subpar. As one might expect, stereotype threat and microinequities can cause those affected to leave or avoid the discipline in which they encounter the discrimination.

Some particular strategies that Ambrose et al. suggest include:

  1. reducing the anonymity that some college classes are prone to;
  2. modeling inclusive language, attitudes, and behavior for our students — in the classroom, on the syllabus, and in our selection of course contents and activities;
  3. using multiple, diverse examples in instruction, a technique that is also good practice [PDF] in courses with international students and non-native speakers of English;
  4. seeking student feedback on course climate; and
  5. preparing students for sensitive discussions.

A perfect example of this last is the care called for in teaching Ovid, whose disturbing, sexually violent content and incomparable style present a pedagogical challenge that has produced multiple volumes on teaching it and occasioned national news coverage of how it may be taught. Liz Gloyn has discussed this issue eloquently.

Despite how we might feel when first introducing the sequence of moods or tenses, we are not teaching language in or to a vacuum. As many of us gear up for a new academic year within a month or so, our teaching will benefit from keeping in mind that our students’ identities and their intellectual and social development play an important role in how they come into our courses.


T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Editor-in-Chief of the SCS Blog and Associate Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He is author of Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and Satire, Plautus: Curculio, and two forthcoming books, A Commentary on Plautus' Curculio (Michigan) and Masks (Tangent). He can be contacted at