«NIKKI BROMBERGER* This article considers whether the techniques and philosophy of a ‘nurturing’ teacher can be justified in the law school ...»
ENHANCING LAW STUDENT LEARNING — THE
This article considers whether the techniques and philosophy of a ‘nurturing’ teacher
can be justified in the law school context. In doing this, the article explores two
interrelated issues. The first is the effect of students’ emotions on their ability to learn effectively. The second is the role of the teacher in being aware of and harnessing these emotions in order to create the optimal classroom environment for effective learning. The article examines some of the techniques of the nurturing teacher, and argues that these techniques and philosophies effectively take account of the emotional aspect of student learning, and are therefore essential to law school teaching.
This article considers the value of the nurturing teaching style in the law school context. It highlights some of the ways in which a student’s emotions affect the quality of their learning both from a cognitive (quality of thinking) and a behavioural (quantity of involvement with learning tasks) perspective, 6 and concludes that teachers who adopt a nurturing philosophy and nurturing techniques are more effective teachers.
There is little research on the issue of emotions and learning in the higher educational arena and even less so in the law school context.7 Few of the major monographs on higher education learning deal in detail with the issue. 8 Those studies that do focus on the relevance of emotions in education, particularly higher education, generally relate to test anxiety and motivation.9 In the law school context, the literature concerning student emotions refers largely to the negative emotional effects that law school has on students’ wellbeing.10 This scarcity of literature is surprising, not only because of what most teachers would recognise as the obvious emotional context of classrooms, but also because there is increasing recognition that viewing learning simply as a matter of cognition (understanding) or knowledge transmission is limited and inaccurate. Researchers have found that cognition cannot be regarded as entirely separate from emotion and that learning must be treated as a complex interaction between cognitive, conative (striving) and emotional processes.11 In light of the research about the effect of emotions on students’ ability to learn, and in light of the apparent gap in the legal education literature on this issue, this article suggests ways that law school teachers should be teaching so as to enhance student learning.
II THE EFFECT OF EMOTIONS ON LEARNING
A Physiological Factors that Affect Learning Studies that have examined the physiological aspects of learning indicate that a person learns most effectively when the brain is in a moderate state of arousal. 12 This is because learning is a process of change — it occurs as a result of cognitive structuring and restructuring.13 The brain’s ability to adapt to this change (neural plasticity) is created by enhancing neural connections in the brain and by increasing production of neural transmitters and neural growth hormones. 14 That is, effective learning and enhanced memory function occur when a person’s brain has the ability to modify and adapt to new circumstances.15 This is best achieved when a person is experiencing a moderate level of arousal — whether positive (mild excitement) or negative (low level anxiety or pressure).
However, a person’s cognitive ability to learn is reduced if the arousal becomes too extreme. For example, the uncomfortable and unwanted feeling that is known as stress is a result of physiological changes in a person’s body — increased levels of adrenaline, increased heart rate and blood pressure and tensing muscles. 16 When people experience stress, their cognitive abilities are reduced because they experience an overwhelming need to control or overcome these symptoms. The stressed individual therefore focuses energy (consciously or otherwise) towards the coping strategies required to reduce the unwanted feelings, leaving them with fewer cognitive resources to focus energies on other aims or interests. If the stressed individual is a student, focusing energy on overcoming the symptoms of stress limits the student’s ability to direct personal resources to learning and memory function. The student becomes engaged in coping mechanisms rather than in the particular educational task at hand.17 As a result, the quality of the student’s engagement and learning decreases.18 B Behavioural Factors that Affect Learning Teachers also need to consider the emotional environment within the classroom, because emotions can also have an impact on students’ ability to learn for behavioural reasons. For example, studies have suggested that students who experience negative feelings in relation to their education (such as lack of confidence, despondency or anxiety) have lower learning goals than those who experience positive feelings about their education (such as confidence, interest or anticipation).19 As their goals are lower, their performance also tends to be inferior.
Further, research indicates that those experiencing negative emotions in relation to their studies tend to be less inclined to pursue, engage in and ultimately persist with learning tasks than those who experience positive emotions in relation to their studies.20 This discrepancy in attitude and ultimately performance is often due to what educational theorists refer to as the phenomenon of self-efficacy.21 Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their own ability to achieve a desired result. It is different from self-esteem, which relates to a person’s belief in themself generally. Self-efficacy is associated with a particular task, such as writing an essay, sitting an exam, or understanding administrative law. It is quite possible to have high self-esteem and low self-efficacy in relation to a certain task.
Those with low self-efficacy tend to avoid or not to engage well with a particular task.
They focus on avoiding unwanted outcomes associated with the activity rather than on the beneficial results of the new challenge. They generally exert less effort in the task and, as a result, perform below their maximum potential. For example, a student who believes that she is no good at administrative law may be disinclined to study for the mid-semester exam, resulting in poor performance in that exam, thereby confirming her original belief that she is no good at the subject. For students with high self-efficacy, the results are reversed. They are more likely to engage at a high level and persevere with the task, perform well, and reach their academic potential. 22 Self-efficacy therefore acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.23 Thus negative emotions, at least in relation to particular tasks, adversely impact on student learning outcomes and success. 24 Students with low self-efficacy are a matter of concern for universities, not only because they fall short of their academic potential, but also because they have the propensity to become despondent, depressed or anxious at their perceived inability to reach a desired goal. They are therefore faced with a choice, as they perceive it, to continue to feel dissatisfied or fearful about their inability to attain their goal, or to stop caring about the goal altogether.25 A common response by such students is to disengage from the goal. Students with low self-efficacy are therefore prone to risk-avoidance.26 This often leads to lack of engagement with the class and learning activities and also results in absenteeism and, ultimately, failure. 27 For example, the student who believes that she cannot comprehend administrative law decides she does not care about it anyway so will not attend class or study for the assessment tasks. She is therefore likely to perform poorly in the subject. If this negative experience occurs early in her studies, it can cause the student to feel that she is unable to understand and perform well in other law subjects, leading to the student feeling negative towards and disengaging from a broader category of task. The next step is the decision that she cannot do it, and this may lead to the realisation that she does not care about the study of law more generally and the decision to discontinue her degree.
Reducing student stress, excessive anxiety, boredom and other strong negative emotions therefore not only enhances student wellbeing for its own sake but it enhances student engagement in the learning process, resulting in more effective learning and potentially higher rates of student retention.28 In short, mild pleasant emotions are more beneficial to students and universities than strong negative ones.
III THE NURTURING TEACHERPart II described how emotions can affect student learning. In light of this fact, this part considers how the university teacher can take account of this knowledge so as to better support engaged and deep learning of law. Research has shown that regular interaction with classroom teachers outside of class time is an important factor in assisting students to feel secure and confident in their studies.29 However, given the workload of academics around the world, the ability of any one teacher to give adequate time to students’ needs out of class is limited.30 Therefore, this paper focuses on the ways in which a teacher can create the best environment in the classroom for student learning. The main task for teachers is to find a point at which a student’s emotional state is intensified to the appropriate level to assist learning but not to the extent that it adversely affects this process. Researchers believe that this is best achieved by challenging and stimulating students academically but in the context of a safe environment. 31 This is, in essence, the philosophy and practice of the nurturing teacher.
University student feedback supports this view. 32 A recent Irish study asked past university students to identify the characteristics of good university teachers. 33 The study was not aimed at examining the emotional component of teaching; however, the researchers found that most of the answers referred to emotional aspects of the teacher’s conduct and how that conduct affected the student. Students indicated that they felt they learned best when the teacher created an environment of safety, enthusiasm, enjoyment and interest.34 The most commonly identified characteristic of a good lecturer was interest — both the teacher’s interest and the teacher’s ability to invoke interest in the learners. 35 Other identified characteristics of good teachers included their passion, animation and inspiration, their enthusiasm, sense of humour and general ability to make classes enjoyable, and their commitment, dedication and compassion. 36 These findings complement other studies which have suggested that the emotional environment established by the teacher is crucial because attitudes and emotions are generally infectious. If a teacher displays positive emotions — enjoyment and interest, for example — students tend to experience reciprocal feelings. 37 In other words, enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm.38 This is one of the reasons why creating the right classroom emotional environment is so closely tied to effective student learning.
Studies at the primary and secondary school level have also highlighted the importance of considering the emotional content of the classroom and for adopting some nurturing elements to teaching philosophy and practice. For example, it has been found that the students of teachers who incorporate emotional aspects into their teaching by being supportive of students and making them feel appreciated, acknowledged and respected (that is, nurturing teachers) have more positive learning outcomes than students whose teachers use only cognitive teaching methods. 39 When teachers display emotional elements in their teaching, students are less inclined to ‘misbehave’ and are better able to formulate and express their thoughts than those where the teacher fails to use such emotional techniques.40 The suggestion that law teachers acknowledge students’ emotions may perhaps be an unpopular one as it may be interpreted as suggesting that educational standards should be reduced. However, the philosophy of a nurturing teacher does not affect educational standards — it merely supports the notion that standards may be more easily reached given an appropriate learning environment. In particular, there is no evidence to suggest that teachers who instil fear, anxiety or boredom in their students make them better lawyers. Yet there is evidence, as detailed above, to suggest that teaching styles that have these effects on students are detrimental to their ability to learn effectively. This suggests that adopting the philosophy and incorporating some of the practices of a nurturing teacher into a law classroom will have beneficial educational consequences for law students.
IV THE NURTURING TEACHER’S TECHNIQUES
A General Techniques The law school classroom can be an intimidating and anxiety-provoking environment.41 In order to create the trusting, supportive environment essential for meaningful learning, nurturing teachers use various techniques, both consciously and subconsciously. These techniques have been collectively termed ‘teacher immediacy’.