The Importance of Affective Learning: An Interview with Kathy Molloy and Diego Navarro

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The two of you are former long-time California Community College professors now working for the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges. Your current project focuses on using student support success factors to ensure learning. Can you begin by telling readers a little bit about what the RP Group is, and then give a brief overview of this particular project?


Kathy Molloy: The RP Group is a nonprofit organization that supports community colleges through research and professional development. Its goal is to build a community college culture that views planning, evidence-based decision-making, and institutional effectiveness as integral to promoting student success and increasing equitable outcomes.


Our project aims to understand how community colleges can feasibly deliver support both inside and outside the classroom to improve success for all students, with a particular focus on African-American and Latino learners. Using phone surveys and focus groups, the RP Group asked nearly 900 students from 13 California Community Colleges what supports their educational success. Feeling directed, focused, engaged, connected, nurtured and valued were the “success factors” that these students identified.

Your project promotes “the importance of affective learning in the classroom.” What are some of the most useful specific activities that you would recommend to instructors of accelerated composition?                                                                                                                                                                                                                        KM: My recommendations are for any class and any discipline, although students can get overwhelmed more quickly in an accelerated class. Making your expectations clear and letting students know that you are there to provide support are key. Doing activities that build community is essential throughout the semester, but especially in the first few weeks. For example, you can provide opportunities in your class for students to learn about you and each other. You can do this by giving multiple assignments involving different small groups and doing icebreakers and other getting-to-know-you activities. And you can teach students about the importance of a growth mindset and other practices of successful students so that they can carry those lessons beyond your classroom.


Diego Navarro: In the first few classes it is important to build trust and emotional safety in your classroom. If you have second language learners or students who see themselves as not really belonging in their college classes, do not use sarcasm or tell jokes that may be misunderstood by them. It is important to show respect and articulate the strengths of your students. Know that many of our students have radar that is keenly tuned to noticing when they feel threatened; how you treat one student is witnessed by all students. Know that if your students do not feel safe then there will be a negative impact especially the first few weeks of class when you are setting norms.


Slow down your tempo; become curious; listen beyond words to student needs, concerns or aspirations to understand their struggles. Realize that the greatest potency may be a pause. Identify and articulate your students’ strengths and positive intentions or traits.


It is also important at the beginning of the semester to keep a keen eye out for those behaviors that will sidetrack students later in the semester. Track and discuss with students their absences from class, missing assignments, and any behaviors that are disruptive to the learning environment that you are creating because the trajectory they create in the first three weeks of the semester may set a trend.


Finally, I think managing students’ energy in your classroom is one of the key affective practices. What I mean by this is: whenever energy is waning in the classroom during a lecture or some other passive activity, do not stop the class for a break since this dissipates the energy of the class. Instead, stop the class and lead them in an engagement-oriented exercise, such as those found in the Academy for College Excellence exercises, to refocus the energy of the students and accomplish one of the following: build community, help the students learn about each other, reinforce what they are learning in your class, build teamwork, or support the development of other professional skills like empathy and listening.


What do you think happens to students when their affective and non-cognitive needs are not met? What’s at stake here?


DN: When students’ affective and non-cognitive needs are not met then they go into bioreaction, a sympathetic nervous system response where the amygdala senses threat, the body receives a flood of hormones to amplify the body's alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. and then they go into a response of fight, flight, freeze or appease. When they are in this response their body biologically is ready for survival and not learning. Their cognitive brain shuts down and they are not able to absorb and process what you are teaching. They have to first deal with identifying that they are in bioreaction and then learn techniques to pulling them out of it. For many students, when their triggered response kicks in it may take them hours to pull out of it. So, these needs are imperative to address.


KM: Our students’ futures are at stake! We know from the survey data from the Center for Community College Student Engagement that 28% of entering students say they feel isolated and that 50% of our students don’t return after the first year. If students don’t feel that they belong at college and that no one cares whether they are there or not, they drop out.  That’s a huge loss in terms of the opportunities they might have for a well-paying job and a huge loss to us as a society.