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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.

Attribution Theory
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 bad luck.

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 nonchallenging tasks.
  • 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 seek help.

Strategies a teacher can use to improve self-efficacy are

  • Assign challenging tasks because accomplishing them improves a student’s self-beliefs.
  • 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 environment
  • Use collaborative learning activities.

Social Constructivism
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 intersubjectivity);.
    • Overt use of the sociocultural context to promote learning.
    • Use of relevant situations in which students are called upon to resolve dilemmas.
    • 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 site.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 18, No. 3

Spring 2003