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Society for the Teaching of Psychology
Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Clinical in the Classroom

29 Sep 2019 10:08 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Crissa Levin, Ph.D., Utah State University

Unmotivated, unhappy, and downright angry students can be difficult to help. One way to consider student management is to integrate what clinical psychologists know about helping individuals who suffer in clinical contexts, and map that onto classroom interactions. And these skills are entirely doable for individuals with any background – clinical or otherwise.

Values are chosen ideals that can never be reached; desired qualities to bring to actions. It can be helpful to bring values into the classroom to help with motivation and engagement, and to help a student manage what they are unhappy about. To help someone evaluate their values, you would want to help them figure out what it is about the class that is meaningful to the individual student. Is it that the course is a steppingstone to the degree they want, a degree that is meaningful for helping them gain independence, or be with family, or move towards mastery in educational attainment? Is it that they value knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and this course may contribute to that knowledge? Once you know the student’s course values, you can help them tie this value to the problem or barrier. If we can figure out what the student really cares about, then when we are listening to their grievances, it’s much easier to understand what they find upsetting or difficult, what it is that matters about the course and what might be going wrong, and how we might get back on track, or even to help them realize that it’s okay to let things go. For example, if both of you can agree that the grade isn’t tied directly to the value, because it’s the knowledge that was always important or because ultimately it’s the degree for which this course is just one small steppingstone, then the student can become satisfied, maybe even happy, with what they’ve received and where to go next or how to get there.

Goals are similar to values, but they can be checked off, they can be attained. So looking now at goals for the course, including grades and coursework, we tend to have this automatic assumption that students should want to do well in our courses. And yet, clinicians know better than to choose goals for  clients. Students are adults, with full lives, including falling in love or being heartbroken, making new friends, dealing with family emergencies – let’s face it, many of the things we remember most about college. Many students will want a high grade, but some students simply may not. It’s not wrong to choose to spend more time with family and friends, or catch up on sleep and health behaviors, or even simply to have fun or grieve a broken heart. In fact, you might have noticed – these things that students might be doing instead are things that we tend to value as a field. What we can learn from a clinical context is that there has to be readiness to engage. If a student does not want to engage in your material to the degree of, say, getting an A+, then maybe moving the goalpost to what they are ready to engage in, and how hard they are ready or able to work, given their own life contexts, is a better match to keep them learning, engaged, and in school. And if we meet them where they are at, and listen to what they need, then we can hear how to help with the students’ own goals instead of forcing our own. 

Lastly, it is important to listen for emotion and validate it. The thing about a student who is unhappy is that they are right. They may not be right about what happened, but they are right that they are unhappy. And there is nothing that fuels that fire more than to literally dismiss that. If the student is angry, or if the student is scared, listen for that – because whatever the emotion is, the emotion is true. If the student feels something has been unfair – like that they are turning in similar work as others and it is being graded more harshly, or that the book is saying one thing and you are saying something else – the student’s perception is true, even if the actual reality of the matter doesn’t line up. And from the student’s eyes, that really isn’t fair, and it makes sense to be angry or frustrated. Students are also often scared that if they don’t do well enough in the class, something bad might happen – maybe they will lose a scholarship or financial aid; maybe they won’t be able to graduate in time and start a job that they have accepted. They might not mention the emotion, but listen for it, because that emotion is true. And when we express understanding of how difficult that spot must be, we can help that student to feel less angry or less scared just by hearing them, even if hearing is all we do.

But when we listen, we also have to be willing to be wrong. We are human. Sometimes, we might grade unfairly by accident, or we might have misread the book or misremembered. So, we don’t want to start with the assumption that we are right and further fuel anger or fear. The student’s emotion is not what will make the difference as to whether we have already made a mistake, and it’s not what should make the difference as to whether we fix our mistakes, so we can listen regardless of the student’s emotion. We can have great empathy without budging the course rules. Because for education to have value, it also has to have standards. We don’t want grades to reflect assertiveness or sympathy instead of understanding and application of course material. So, we can have great empathy, and can even grieve the outcome with a student, without changing a grade or rule.

In short, we can learn to respect students and treat them as autonomous individuals with autonomous values, goals, and experiences. We can hold all of these things to be valid and true, and can help guide our students towards what they want in education, even when it’s not what we want for them. This will likely help the way it does for clinical clients – to provide less suffering through helping those we are working with to stay on track and meet their goals – not ours.


Dr. Crissa Levin is a lecturer at Utah State University, where for the past several years she has been teaching exclusively online, focusing her efforts on adapting technologies, experiences and communities into online environments. Dr. Levin is passionate about ensuring that distance students receive excellent education in the virtual classroom and educational opportunities outside of classes. Dr. Levin co-runs an undergraduate research lab primarily for distance students, which focuses on student learning and engagement above any particular topic within psychology. Dr. Levin is also interested and engaged in research on teaching and learning, especially as it applies to engagement or to best practices in online courses, or to using elements of therapy (such as values and mindfulness) to help students succeed.

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