Stress and active learning

One for the EU specialists…

This weekend I caught up with an old friend. He works for a software company, overseeing the sales team.

Recently, he’s been doing some work with occupational psychologists, to get a better handle on the team’s stress levels. He told me about all this over a cuppa, including the SCARF model, which I’d not heard of.

SCARF is a diagnostic framework for identifying sources of stress, where individuals encounter challenges to their Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness (being part of the group) and Fairness.

There’s a useful summary (and diagram) here.

Listening to my friend, telling me how this works for his team (status is the big thing, apparently), I was struck by how this works in the educational context.

For example, one of the reasons why assessment is so stressful is that it hits most of these areas: students might feel success brings status with teaching staff, it’s relatively uncertain, it’s out of their control, and it’s not necessarily a fair way to judge achievement. The gain of a shared experience with other students pales next to all this.

Clearly, there are general lessons about student welfare to be picked up from this model, but it’s also useful to consider how it relates to active learning.

In traditional, transmission-centred approaches, life might appear to be relatively stress-free: most of the time you sit then, soaking up material, with the occasional bouts of panic at assessment time.

By contrast, active learning might be more challenging.

The biggest issue is likely to be the increased requirement for autonomy: active learning requires participation and the production of contributions on a rolling basis. This front-loads requirements on students, at a point where they might feel they know relatively little (raising issues of status (you want to look good in front of friends) and relatedness (you don’t want to get marginalised in the group if you fail)).

Similarly, the relative absence of the instructor means students have to self-regulate more than usual, so fairness might become more of a factor than in a situation where fairness gets imposed from above.

And it’s also worth highlighting that the model points to active learning being more stressful for teaching staff too, with lower status, higher uncertainty and a big hit to autonomy: no longer is everyone doing just what you want of them.

Despite this, I think that active learning’s benefits outweigh these costs.

Firstly, precisely because students are brought actively into the process from the start, they have much more time to prepare themselves for any summative assessment, both in terms of having to consider materials and of practising producing ideas. The stress is spread out, rather than concentrated at the back end.

But equally, if stress is managed properly, it also comes with raised engagement. If we are making our active learning spaces safe (as we always should be), then we are offering students both the opportunity and the tools to manage stress better, which not only points them to thinking more about the matter in hand, but also how to deal with other sources of stress in their life.

We’re helping our students to learn about the world and how to engage with it. That means skills matter at least as much as substantive knowledge. And handling stress is one of those skills. Yes, active learning is more stressful for all involved, but the benefits that flow from that are ones that might serve us all well.