Identifying Student Strengths for a Productive and Respectful Classroom Environment

Musicologist Dr. Virginia Lamothe shares her strategy for identifying and augmenting student strengths for a productive and respectful classroom environment

Students helping studentsA year before I graduated with my Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I took a supplementary, non-required course about classroom methods and teaching.  I had already had a good deal of experience teaching recitation sections for music history and music theory courses.  I had even designed and implemented my own curriculum for a History of Hip Hop Music course.  But the course I took helped me look deeper into teaching in terms of the efficacy of pedagogy styles and also some educational psychology.  The book I found myself drawn to again and again was Joseph Lowman’s Mastering the Techniques of Teaching in my first teaching jobs.  While the second edition of the book discusses everything a new teacher wants to know; from how to motivate students and the importance of assessment, I was most drawn to Lowman’s discussion and expansion of the Mann Group’s Typology of Student Learners.  I suppose the reason for this was that I had long been cognizant of the fact that most of the students I met in my classes thought and acted in ways very different from me, and I was curious to understand why certain behaviors happened in my classroom.  I was equally curious about students with good study habits and active participation in my class as I was of students who seemed reactionary or defiant of any instructions I gave them.  What I had to learn over the decade that I have been teaching now, is that understanding my students from the point of view of a typology such as this one does not help me bring out the best in myself as an enthusiastic and flexible teacher because it focuses more on my students’ flaws and weaknesses. What I needed was a typology that would allow me to identify, understand, and engage my students’ strengths.

What I needed was a typology that would allow me to identify, understand, and engage my students’ strengths.

The Mann typology includes eight categories of students and a ranking of the number believed to exist in every classroom based on a percentage.  The Mann group identifies “Anxious-Dependent” students as the most commonly found in a classroom at 26%. Anxious-dependents, as described by the Mann study have excessive concerns about their grades. They want to learn exactly what the teacher wants them to know. They are often distrustful of the teacher and expect unfair practices and “trick” questions. They combine high anxiety, ambition, and suspiciousness and may have a low opinion of their ability. During tests, students in this category often look frazzled and will stay until the end. Their work is frequently unimaginative or erratic. They prefer a lecture to a discussion and may memorize details but often lack conceptual complexity.

The second most commonly found group of students at 20% are called “Silent Students” in the Mann Group’s study.  These students, although they do not speak in class, are very aware of how the instructor behaves toward them. They want a close relationship with the instructor but are afraid that the instructor does not think well of their work or of them. They respond by silence.  The remaining categories of students identified by the Mann group include “Attention Seekers” who come to class because they want to socialize, “Compliant Students” who are task-oriented and rarely question the teacher’s authority, “Heroes,” or erratic, overly-optimistic underachieving students, “Snipers” who act with hostility towards their teachers and fellow students and often respond with cynicism, and “Depressed Learners,” who display a depressed, fatalistic attitude towards their abilities and their education.

Writer's block

Only one category of students comprising 12% of student populations are identified as “ideal students,” and they are the “Independent Learners.”  This type of student accepts what the teacher and the course has to offer while pursuing their own intellectual goals at the same time.  This group is identified as rare in freshman and sophomore students, and more commonly found in juniors and seniors.  While Mann and Lowman offer suggestions for dealing with each type of learner, no real suggestions are made for this ideal, independent learner.  Lowman even goes so far as to say that they “do not require much special attention other than the just desserts of their achievements.”  But doesn’t that leave out not only our lower classmen, as well as those students whose “achievements” we do not easily see? Aren’t these qualifications based on behavior rather than more innate traits of each student?

Do we really want any student to feel anxiety or have an unhealthy dependence upon their instructor?

I have finally asked myself after years of considering my students against this typology: “are you kidding me?”  Don’t give attention to students who seem to be able to learn on their own? Consider an angry young man or woman a “Sniper”?  Isn’t just the thought of a “sniper” in one’s mind an act of reacting to hostility with hostility?  And what about those “Anxious-Dependents”?  Do we really want any student to feel anxiety or have an unhealthy dependence upon their instructor? Now I look at these descriptions and shudder.

Why should anxiety and learning co-exist?  Ken Bain discusses in his book What the Best College Students Do a number of studies that have shown that when students become anxious, their ability to learn and retain information is seriously compromised. While taking into account that these students do exist, I employ tactics to help reduce anxiety in the classroom.  Most of these tactics revolve around choices.  Students who complete their homework are given the full homework grade (even if they are a little unsure of some of the questions).  In some classes, I allow for open-note exams.  This way, students who choose to do their reading, listening assignments, and pay attention and take notes in class will benefit and those who choose not to, will not earn high grades.  After much adjusting in my various classes in both popular and classical music, I have found ways that students will know that their grade is really up to them: if they choose to do the work, they will earn good grades and have much less anxiety.

Teachers should focus on giving every student an opportunity to use their strengths to learn, and help others learn alongside them.

I have similar feelings for Mann and Lowman’s “Silent Students.” While Mann and Lowman argue that the worst thing a professor can do is overlook or ignore them, I believe that there is a line where these students are not comfortable with being called upon without warning.  While a professor may think they are helping this student by calling on them, I have found that these types of students will further withdraw or wilt in the company of their peers if not engaged properly.  Rather, I speak with them, little by little, before or after class, and then help to engage them into low-stakes discussions or group games.

Teacher student conference

So, what does work when considering the personalities of the students in your classroom?  One that focuses on strengths!  I attended a Teaching Center event where I learned about the Clifton StrengthsFinder of Gallup Inc.  Donald Clifton, Ph. D., a psychologist and Business Executive first formulated a set of themes for personal strengths when he asked “What will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?”  His typology includes thirty-four themes that are found in every person.  The themes, however, are not determined by response behaviors, but rather, by utilization of an innate ability. The StrengthsFinder test run by Gallup helps people discover which of these thirty-four themes are more actively present in the way each person thinks, feels, learns, and works.

strengthsfinder wheel

The idea behind the StrengthsFinder method is to find the interconnectedness of four important categories of a productive workplace, or in the educational world, the classroom.  These categories are “Influencing” others to action, “Executing” tasks to become results, “Strategic Thinking” in analyzing information in order see what is, and what could be in the future, and “Relationship Building” where deep, meaningful bonds between colleagues or schoolmates are formed.  People with certain themes fit into one or two of these categories.  In turn, they can work with others with these same themes to create team-based success – a trait greatly sought after in many areas of the working world.

After taking a short test, students may find a number of themes that best describe their strengths. Many university counseling centers and career development centers offer the test at little to no cost to the student.  I would encourage teachers to have conversations with their students about their results of the test, and how the student now feels with this new information.  Perhaps that “achiever” isn’t just the annoying, overly ambitious student, but rather is someone who possesses a great deal of stamina who takes satisfaction in staying busy.  Or maybe that student once viewed as jaded and argumentative actually has a gift of being “deliberative” due to the serious care they take in making decisions while having a healthy understanding of the obstacles that will present themselves as they take on future projects.  What about that chatty student who always with something on his mind?  He may have the strength of “communication” where he can easily put his thoughts and feelings into words and make an excellent presenter.  These are just a few examples of how I believe the StrengthsFinder test and accompanying literature can help both students and teachers better understand one another in a respectful way.  Teachers should focus on giving every student an opportunity to use their strengths to learn, and help others learn alongside them.

 

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Virginia Lamothe
This post is by Virginia Christy Lamothe, a musicologist and Lecturer at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She teaches courses in the history of classical and popular music. Her research focuses include teaching practices of higher education, music of the seventeenth century, and Tin Pan Alley and theater at the turn of the twentieth century.

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