by Bill Peirce, Coordinator, Reasoning Across the Curriculum
Teachers with an interest in theories about motivation and learning in higher
education will find a great deal of research and theory summarized in Creating
Learning Centered Classroom: What Does Learning Theory Have to Say? by
Frances K. Stage, Patricia A. Muller, Jillian Kinzie, and Ada Simmons. The
monograph is vol. 26, number 4, published by the Association for the Study of
Higher Education in 1998.
If you have been wondering how to help your students become better learners
and better able to apply knowledge learned in one context in a new context, the
book provides several frameworks for considering how to apply several productive
learning theories in your classrooms:
- Attribution theory – what students believe to be the explanation for
their academic successes and failures.
- Self-efficacy – what students believe about their capabilities to
perform academic tasks.
- Social constructivism – the theory that learners actively construct
knowledge in a social context as they try to make sense of it in discussion
or problem solving.
- Freire’s theory of conscientization – a pedagogy that connects course
content to students’ lives and communities and encourages change.
- Learning and cognitive styles – the learning and cognitive styles of
college professors is different from most of their students.
In sections of about 10-15 pages, the book provides a brief description of
each framework and its application to student learning in college.
When students get an unexpected result on tests or assignment grades
(especially failures), they perform a mental causal search to explain to
themselves why it happened. When they achieve good results, students tend to
attribute the result to only two factors: their own ability and effort. When
they fail, they might attribute the cause to these same internal factors or they
might, in a self-protective rationalization, distance themselves from a sense of
personal failure by blaming external causes, such as an overly difficult task or
This tendency to attribute success to ability and effort promotes future
success because it develops confidence in one’s ability to solve future
unfamiliar and challenging tasks. The converse is also true. Attributing failure
to a lack of ability reduces self-confidence and reduces the student’s
summoning of intellectual and emotional abilities to the next challenging tasks;
attribution theory also explains why such students will be unwilling to seek
help from tutors and other support services: they believe it would not be worth
their effort. In addition to blaming failure on external causes, classic
underachievers often "self-handicap" themselves by deliberately
putting little effort into an academic task; they thereby protect themselves
from attributing their failure to a painful lack of ability by attributing their
failure to lack of effort.
Faculty can employ several strategies that break the self-defeating cycle of
negative causal attributions:
- Create a climate which emphasizes mastery learning, rather than grading on
a curve or rewarding good competitors.
- Give feedback that emphasizes attributing successful results to ability
and effort, but don’t give excessive praise or praise for accomplishing
- When students do poorly, give feedback that expresses your confidence that
poor ability is not the explanation. Encourage more effort and
better-directed effort as factors that the students can control and change.
- Create an atmosphere that shows a "can do" spirit for
successfully taking on new challenges.
In the academic context, self-efficacy is defined as individuals’ beliefs
about their capabilities to perform tasks at various levels and exercise control
over the outcomes. Self-efficacy beliefs are formed in a "cyclical process
in which individuals interpret performance and adjust self-beliefs, which in
turn inform and alter subsequent performance" (p. 24). Self-efficacy
beliefs affect students’ thoughts, feelings, motivation, and persistence.
Furthermore, self-efficacy is highly domain specific and will vary among
domains; for example, a student might have high self-efficacy in writing and
reading and low self-efficacy in math. Self-efficacy affects the kinds of tasks
students take on or avoid, how much effort they will expend, and whether they
Strategies a teacher can use to improve self-efficacy are
- Assign challenging tasks because accomplishing them improves a student’s
- Regard ability in the domain as a skill that can be learned.
- Create an atmosphere where students do not compete against each other but
obtain satisfaction through mastering learning outcomes.
- Provide ways students can exercise some control over the learning
- Use collaborative learning activities.
The basic assumption of social constructivism is that learners construct
knowledge in a social context as they try to make sense of it, continually
modifying prior knowledge as they apply it to new contexts. This assumption is
the opposite of the notion that students learn by passively receiving
information from lectures and textbooks, memorizing it, and repeating it as a
demonstration of their learning. Those interested in developing
learning-centered classrooms will find in social constructivism the theoretical
and empirical bases that ground their teaching practices. According to the
authors, the conditions that distinguish social constructivism are
- Students’ active involvement in the social processes of the classroom.
- Emphasis on the critical role of peers, in particular more skilled
students, in promoting understanding.
- Enculturation of students into the community of the particular academic
discipline or profession.
- Emphasis on the common construction of knowledge that results when
students involved in an activity negotiate their individual accounts and
arrive at some level of agreement (which could be regarded as
- Overt use of the sociocultural context to promote learning.
- Use of relevant situations in which students are called upon to resolve
- Appreciation of multiple perspectives. (p. 40)
Students learn disciplinary skills by interacting with other learners, by
internalizing course content as they solve problems, by applying prior knowledge
to new contexts. Collaborative and cooperative learning and problem-based
learning are grounded in social constructivism.
Freire’s Theory of Conscientization
The authors summarize Freire’s essential beliefs as
- Democratic dialogue in the classroom.
- A curriculum situated in the learner’s reality.
- Participatory teaching formats.
- Student-centered learning (p. 52).
Freire sees conscientization as movement by students through four levels,
ending with critical consciousness:
People at this level deeply and critically interpret problems, exhibit
self-confidence in discussions, and take action as part of their refusal to
shirk responsibility. Discourse is dialogical at this level. People who
think holistically and critically about their conditions reflect this
highest level of thought and action (p. 56).
In practice, Freire’s pedagogy involves a democratic dialogue among
students and teachers and involves extensive problem posing. "Problem
posing" is different from problem solving in that problem posing applies
course content to student’s everyday lives and engages students in critical
discussions of actual problems in their experiences and society. Freire
considers traditional problem solving to be a hunt by students for the correct
solution imposed by the teacher.
Learning and Cognitive Styles
The section on learning and cognitive styles is disappointedly brief, but it
does make the point that the learning and cognitive styles of college professors
is different from most of their students. The seven intelligences described by
Howard Gardner and the four learning styles of David Kolb are briefly
summarized. The chief point of the section is that a professor’s thinking and
learning style can very strongly influence his or her classroom behavior, tests
and assignments, and evaluation of tests and assignments. Because so many
racially and culturally diverse students have learning and cognitive styles
different from their teachers, a skillful teacher will accommodate their
learning and cognitive preferences.
Many other learner-centered resources are available at the RAC/MCCCTR Web