Step 5.

motivate & lessen resistance

How can we overcome emotional resistance to learning?

Emotional bottlenecks come in three forms, and each needs its own response:

1. Lack of motivation

Many students suffer from a lack of engagement or motivation, and the range of causes can be quite broad: from a lack of preparation or study skills (e.g. "I didn't do the reading"); to mental health or physical health challenges ("I have severe anxiety" or "I'm not smart enough so why bother"); to a "C's get degrees" attitude ("I just need to pass"). Or, it could be systematic issues such as racism, sexism, etc. that cause an inequality in the classroom. (See "Disrupting the Disciplines")

This is where we've found, in particular, that active learning techniques are especially powerful.

2. Procedural bottlenecks

Students sometimes have ideas about how one works in a discipline that are very different from what will be expected of them in our courses. As if a student has seen a TV medical (firefighting / law / etc..) drama and believes this is what it is like to be a doctor (firefighter / lawyer / etc..).

This mismatch can produce emotional resistance to the required kinds of thinking and activities that hamper learning. By directly engaging with these preconceptions, by taking time to explain the nature of our disciplines, and by modeling the specific steps required for success, we can minimize the impact of these obstacles.

3. Identity bottlenecks

An identity bottleneck is, for example, a student thinking "I'm not good at math" or "I was raised to believe ___". These worldview bottlenecks are social constructed through education and negotiated within the communities they belong.

What can be done?

Dealing with emotional bottlenecks is a complex undertaking, and more work needs to be done in this area. Three general principles have informed the work on this subject:

  • Identify the emotional bottleneck. Often this is through short assignments.
  • Create a new bottleneck lesson that compares ways of thinking.
  • "Disrupt" the learning scripts through course design. For example, when students are told to write a report, but in their minds they think essay.
  • Structure in student accountability, such as getting feedback from teammates.


[Add examples]

At each stage of the Decoding process it is essential to monitor both the cognitive and emotional progress of students. Question 6 of Decoding focuses on assessing where students are throughout the course.