October 20, 2010

Psychological Safety - A Key Component to Students’ Motivation

by Kimberly Still, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Baltimore VA Medical Center
Have you ever had a truly stellar professor? The kind who made you feel like no question was a dumb question?  Who made you energized about the subject and confident that you would succeed? Ever had the complete opposite? A professor so intimidating and negative you’d rather bite your tongue (literally) than ask a question for fear of looking stupid? What’s the main difference between these two extreme cases? The answer: the presence/absence of psychological safety.
So what does this term mean exactly? Psychological safety basically endorses the concept that students learn better when they feel safe. Embracing this idea means creating an environment where students feel comfortable enough to acknowledge their own weaknesses, voice their gaps in knowledge, and ask for help when they need it.  The importance of this concept lies in its link to student motivation. However, in order to understand how the two are related, we must first take a look at what creates motivation.
Though there are many theories surrounding student motivation, it is pretty well summarized by the following equation from Barron and Hulleman:
motivation = expectancy x value
“Expectancy” in this case means the extent to which a student believes that he/she can perform a particular task. “Value” means the level of interest and degree of importance the student places on a task. Psychological safety ties into this equation in a number of ways. Creating a positive and safe learning environment can be empowering for students, giving them the confidence to take on the challenge presented to them, which translates to a high level of expectancy. Furthermore, allowing students to feel safe asking questions prevents the suppression of any innate interest they might already have for a particular topic, which helps preserve perceived value.

While most instructors are unlikely to fall into the extreme category of the negative and demeaning persona presented at the beginning of this discussion, evidence suggests that many teachers have lost sight of the importance of psychological safety, specifically as it relates to student-teacher rapport. One survey of teachers and undergraduates revealed only 7% of professors ranked rapport in the list of top 10 master teaching qualities, compared to 42% of students.
2 Another student survey by Benson, et al, examined the association of rapport with student attitudes and motivation. They found a positive relationship between rapport and many proacademic behaviors such as “attending class, paying attention during class, and studying.” When asked to identify the characteristics needed to establish rapport, among the most common responses included open-mindedness, accessibility, approachability, and concern for students.3

So how does one go about establishing a rapport and promoting psychological safety in the classroom? The possibilities are numerous. Here are just a few suggestions:
  • Address students by name. With a large class size this can be an arduous task, but it can go a long way with letting your students know that you care about them.
  • Set your students up for early success. Start off easy and gradually increase the level of difficulty in content. Such a strategy will help build their confidence and their comfort level with the subject.
  • Provide positive feedback early and often.
  • Avoid demeaning comments.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit “I don’t know.”  This will help increase your students’ comfort level in voicing their own gaps in knowledge.
  • Never underestimate the utility of the compliment sandwich!
  • When providing individualized negative feedback, identify with your student if possible.  At a minimum encourage him/her by expressing a sincere belief that he/she can improve (Ex. “I noticed you had some difficulty putting things into layman’s terms for the patient. I had trouble with that as well when I was first starting out. Here are some tips that I find handy… Don’t stress, I know you’ll get the hang of it, it just takes practice.”)
These suggestions may sound fairly simple, but attempting to utilize such strategies while still maintaining focus on the successful implementation of the course/rotation can be quite challenging. Nonetheless, adhering to these principles is vital in order to maintain a positive learning experience and cultivate each student’s motivation to succeed.
1. Barron KE and Hulleman CS. Is there a formula to help understand and improve student motivation? Essays from e-xcellence in teaching. 2006 ;8:33-8.  [cited 2010 Oct 18]
2. Buskist W, Sikorski J, Buckley T, & Saville BK. The teaching of psychology: Essays in honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie and Charles L. Brewer. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc; 2002. Elements of master teaching; p. 27-39.
3. Benson TA and Cohen AL. Rapport: its relation to student abilities and behaviors toward teachers and classes. Teach Psychol 2005;32:237-9. [cited 2010 Oct 18]
4. Davis BG. Tools for teaching. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 2009. Chapter 31, Motivating Students; p. 278-87.

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