The Reluctant Learner

December 15, 2014 No comments exist

Amy Gross, Ph.D.
Guest Contributor

We’ve all been there – either as a student or as a teacher. That class where we believe we are just not good at that despised subject or where we experience extreme performance anxiety. For me it was anything related to science – it is fascinating stuff, I just can’t (or don’t want to) “learn” it. In terms of math, I can do it – just not in front of others!

I was recently taken back uncomfortably (but in a good way) to my graduate statistics courses when I attended the “Creating Comfortable Classroom Environments for Reluctant Learners,” facilitated by Candice Muñoz and Sunni Samuels at the Lilly Conference for College and University Teaching in Bethesda, Maryland. For the record, I can “do” statistics and math – just not when someone is watching me! Professors Muñoz and Samuels did a great job of simulating the apprehension of students when they randomly presented session participants with either a public speaking or a math assignment to complete on the spot. Naturally (because I am comfortable with public speaking), I got the math problem! I froze…broke out in a cold sweat…wanted to flee the room…had flashbacks of standing at the blackboard knowing what to do but not being able to do it…afraid of looking dumb. Deep breath; get a grip. I quickly had that “Aha!” moment that this is exactly what our students might just be feeling as they enter some of the classes we teach. What can we do as teachers?

After we finished our simulated math assignment (admittedly with a little help from my new friend and partner in crime sitting beside me), we reflected and discussed our reactions to courses in which students frequently experience much trepidation and how we, as teachers, might help alleviate student fears and, better yet, build their confidence. Following are some of the key ideas I took away from this session.

Who is the reluctant learner? They can look like the “unmotivated” learner. We see them sitting in the back of room, disengaged with poor attendance and barely doing the minimum required because “I can’t do it anyway.” These students are different from their unmotivated counters because they want to do well, they just don’t think that they can. In essence, they have learned to view themselves as helpless (Seligman, 1975). The presenters cited the learned helplessness research (Diener & Dweck, 1978; Seligman, 1975; 1995; Peterson et al., 1995), and suggested that these students have the misperception that they are powerless over the situation. We need to reach out to them to build their confidence because it is more comfortable for them to underperform than it is to admit openly that they need help.

Use Reflection to Uncover Past Histories: Using notecards, Professor Muñoz asks students to write about their prior experience with public speaking and how it has made them feel in the past. This helps her (and her students) understand where their anxiety related to public speaking comes from. She can then use this information to integrate assignments and experiences to help alleviate prior negative experiences.

Scaffold Learning: Scaffolding experiences and building in lots of positive feedback to demonstrate that students CAN do it is helpful. Start small. Build student success and confidence with small steps. As examples, in math classes, worksheets can be designed to create small steps for math problems. In speech classes, worksheets can be used to break down each major step of the speech writing process. (See this link for another good overview of scaffolding.)

Set High (but Attainable) Expectations: Set expectations that will challenge the students and then design the course (i.e. scaffolding) to help the students reach the expectations. If you set low expectations, students may not work to move beyond them.

Create a Collaborative Environment: Students need to feel connected to the group. As we discussed this in the session, I thought of my first public speaking class my first semester of college. It happened to be on Tuesday nights. I remember my teacher, Ron Whitt, walking into the room. The first thing he said was that we were all a little crazy for taking public speaking as a night class. And that he must be a little crazy for teaching it as a night class! We immediately bonded and since we were all a little crazy, we were allowed to have a little bit fun as we ventured into our first exposure to giving formal speeches in front of others. As I recall, we also worked initially in small groups (a way to scaffold our comfort in speaking in front of a few instead of the whole class). Good stuff – especially if I still remember it nearly 30 years later.

Exhibit Your Passion: Enthusiasm is contagious. While acknowledging student fear and doubt, demonstrating openly why we love our own disciplines – and why it is important – can help students get engaged in the subject. This can help foster intrinsic motivation in our students (versus extrinsic motivation) because it helps them understand why we love what we teach. A couple of resources that give some specific ideas include POD-IDEA Center Note #4: Demonstrated the Importance and Significance of the Subject Matter, POD-IDEA Center Note #13: Introduced Stimulating Ideas about the Subject, and IDEA Paper No. 41: Student Goal Orientation, Motivation, and Learning.

Naturally, there were other suggestions and ideas – these spoke to me. But most importantly, it reminded me not to just disregard the seemingly unmotivated student – I need to reach out to understand what each student is experiencing so that I can support their success.

I’d like to thank Candice Muñoz and Sunni Samuels from Mott Community College for reviewing and making helpful suggestions on this blog post. Their session was so engaging that my notes needed some further detail!


Diener, C. I., & Dweck, C. S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in performance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 361, 451-462.

Peterson, C. P., Maier, S. F. M., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1993). Learned helplessness: A theory for the age of personal control. New York: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). The optimistic child. Australia: Random House.

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