Kennesaw State University

Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning


By Michele DiPietro

As educators, we cannot force development, but we can encourage it, and we can certainly affect the course climate to make it conducive for learning.

The sixth principle of learning concerns students’ level of development. Not only does the maturity of each student determine how deeply they can process the content, but also the developmental profiles of all students (and the instructor) combine to create the course environment, which itself also impacts learning (Ambrose et al. 2010).

Research shows that the developmental gains students make in college dwarf the gains in knowledge (Mayhew et al. 2016). Students are developing autonomy, confidence and a sense they can handle life challenges, interpersonal skills, integrity, a sense of purpose, sophisticated epistemologies, and a positive sense of their gender, racial, and other social class identities.

How do humans develop? Research shows that we move forward along our trajectory when life’s challenges reveal the inadequacies of our current ways of thinking and coping and draw us to develop more sophisticated ones. This insight is important for us as we design the pedagogical challenges in our courses. If students do not feel challenged enough, they will feel no need to move forward; if the challenge feels unsurmountable, they will foreclose development and possibly even regress. Out of all the possible dimensions for development, this piece focuses on intellectual development and social identity development.

Intellectual development

Researchers in this area have tried to map trajectories for students’ conceptions of what it means to learn and to know something, and consequently for the role of the teachers and learners at each stage. Of course, student go through a great deal of maturation already in primary and secondary schools, but their epistemologies might still be inadequate for the kind of intellectual effort college requires. 

  1. At the lowest level, students might be in a position called Dualism, or Received Knowledge (Perry 1997; Belenky et al. 1984). In this view, the world is easily partitioned in true and false facts, and to know something means to memorize all the true facts about the topic. The role of the professor is to provide all the facts, and the role of the students is to regurgitate them back on the day of the test.
  2. The existence of enduring issues for which we do not have one right answer or viewpoint is frustrating and eventually ushers in the next stage, Multiplicity or Subjective Knowledge. Here, to know something means to memorize all the different, sometimes opposite, perspectives on the issue. While this transition is frustrating, it brings in the realization that people might have valid points even when they disagree, and the empowering possibility that one might disagree with the textbook and the professor, making learning a personal exercise.
  3. Everybody is entitled to their opinions, but some opinions are better than others, depending on the evidence they are based. This realization propels students to the next stage, Relativism or Contextual Knowledge. This is a qualitative shift, in that knowledge now is not defined by the number of facts accumulated, but by the ability to justify one’s positions and connect pieces, interpret findings, draw inferences, argue a case, research missing pieces and in general think critically. At this stage, professors who bring in multiple perspectives and probe students’ thinking are met with appreciation rather than the exasperation of the previous stages.
  4. The danger of this stage is intellectual paralysis, because no perspective is perfect and a relativistic outlook is acutely aware of the limits of each perspective. But in order to act in the world, students need to commit to one perspective over others and use it. The Commitment is provisional, and could change if new information emerges. This brings people full circle to picking one perspective over the others, but not in the blind fashion of the dualistic stage. Rather, it is a nuanced position, so sophisticated in fact that only a minuscule percentage of students reaches it in the college years.

Social Identity Development

We all belong to multiple social groups (racial/ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, ability etc) and develop identities as members of those groups. Researchers refer to social identity development as the process by which we think through our membership in social groups, dominant or stigmatized, and cultivate a positive sense of membership in our groups. Scholars have pointed out how these processes are intertwined with the learning process (Giroux 2005).

Each facet of social identity development has been studied (White, Black, Latinx, mae, female, homosexual, transexual, etc) but they trace a similar trajectory (Hardiman and Jackson 1992). According to this trajectory, children start up in a state of naïveté, noticing differences such as skin color, but not ascribing any specific meaning to them. But soon enough, they are bombarded with messages from society about which groups are smarter, or lazy, or beautiful, or sinful, or disordered, or dependable, better at math and so on. These messages are implicit, so we all accept them to some degree, members of dominant and stigmatized groups alike. 

The way these messages get questioned is through witnessing blatant injustice, or repeated encounters with members of other groups around meaningful work. Given that college is still the first meaningful encounter with diversity for many students, group work and course content in certain disciplines can become the vehicle for that questioning. The questioning might look different for different groups. Members of stigmatized groups enter an Immersion stage, where they actively seek opportunities to compare their social experiences with their peers from which they emerge ready to challenge racism and other isms (Cross 1991; Tatum 2017). When members of dominant groups are faced with their privilege and the oppressive history of their group, they enter a Disintegration stage (Helms 1995). Their understanding of their social identity starts to fall apart, and they need to construct a more nuanced understanding. The process can be painful, with feelings of anger and guilt. If people continue on their developmental trajectories they will rebuild a positive sense of self in the Redefinition and Internalization stages, where their social identity is just one facet of their whole self. But in college, most students are at the acceptance, immersion/emersion, and disintegration/reintegration, and this can make for conflict in course discussions. Unless the conflict is harnessed into productive conversations, it will affect the course climate and hinder learning. 

Course Climate

Students work out their developmental challenges (intellectual and otherwise) in the context of our courses, therefore it is important that we create a climate that is conducive to learning. Attention to climate started in the field of women studies, with the “chilly climate” papers documenting the climate for female students in higher education in the 80s (Hall 1982). While we have made strides since those days, many students still find the course climate in their courses chilly. Moreover, research has proven that perceptions of a chilly climate negatively student learning, critical thinking, and preparation for a career (Pascarella et al. 1997; Whitt et al 1999).

DeSurra and Church (1994) point out that the course climate can marginalize or centralize student perspectives, and it can do so explicitly or implicitly. This creates a continuum from explicitly marginalizing climates to explicitly centralizing. In their research, they measured perceptions of course climates, and found that faculty and student perceptions of the course climate often disagreed.


As educators, we cannot force development, but we can encourage it, and we can certainly affect the course climate to make it conducive for learning. Disciplinary context matters, but we can draw general principles.

  • To move students forward from dualism, the first step is to make uncertainty safe. Students need to become comfortable with ambiguity, of approaches and perspectives.
  • To move students forward from multiplicity, insist on evidence. Data, proofs, a logical chain of argumentations, citations, all help to ground opinions.
  • To move students forward from relativism, explore the implicit values and consequences embedded in each course of actions as a way to make students take ownership of their thinking.
  • Because climate is about perceptions, check your own perceptions of how the course is going against the students. Answers might surprise you, but then you can work on issues that arise.
  • Instructor-student relationships have been showed to contribute greatly to climate, especially for students who are thinking of dropping out (Seymour & Hewitt 1997). Instructors who are perceived as helpful, approachable, fair, and reasonable, create more welcoming climates.
  • Student-student relationships are also connected to a positive climate (Astin 1997). Especially in large courses with fewer opportunities to get to know students individually, instructors who foster student interactions through groupwork, or through the learning management system, create more positive climates.
  • Tone is also connected to climate. Two courses identical in objectives, policies, and schedules but worded one with punitive words and one with encouraging words create great differences in student perceptions of the instructor’s helpfulness and approachability, and generate significant less willingness on the part of the students to seek help in office hours when needed and to take the course for the punitive one. The effect was even more pronounced for first year students (Ishiyama & Hartlaub 2002).



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