As professional historians, we are able to do history like professional rock climbers—without ropes, which to students might look something like this:


You have to really like it to go for it. But you have to get ready for it, too. (Photo courtesy of

Our years-long training in historical thinking provides us with the necessary skills to do this. Our students, however, need to start with a different type of rock climbing, which we could call “rock climbing with ropes,” or learning history with their teacher’s guidance and help.


This is a lot less frightening, isn’t it? (Photo courtesy of Petzl/Lafouche)

Naturally, many students do not like climbing without ropes, and their instructors may experience resistance to such learning: “The students in my class do not want to work hard and learn.” And who could blame them? Learning such climbing demands a massive amount of time, effort, and commitment.

But research by our Affective Learning Project shows something different to boot. To every class, students bring pre-formed narratives about that class’s content and format. When classroom experiences do not match students’ expectations, emotional bottlenecks arise. Many students might stop wanting to learn. Analyses of faculty and student interviews reveal two kinds of student preconceptions:

* procedural (regarding how history, or rock climbing, works and how it should be taught), and

* identity-based (revealing two modes of thinking: “I am/am not a good rock climber” OR “The instructor has something against me or ‘my kind’ of rock climbers”).

Research on misconceptions about science, alongside neuroscience on emotions, has illuminated this phenomenon. From the education specialist Micki Chi, our team of researchers learned to show students the contrast between the ways they are thinking about a concept VERSUS the way an expert does. Why? As professional historians, we don’t want our students to make serious cognitive mistakes because cognitive and affective aspects of learning are interrelated! When students watch experts model their own successful confrontation of these emotional bottlenecks, they learn critical tactics for achieving historical literacy as well.

When addressing student emotions, some people assume that the instructor’s response should also be emotional. But learning—or, more exactly, conceptual change—is the goal. Yet our research also shows that emotions are intertwined with all learning. Students who have not previously written poetry, for example, may have an inner narrative about not being a poet and not being able to write a good poem. Tony Ardizzone, Emereti Professor at Indiana University, was able to break this poetry-writing bottleneck into component parts (see his lecture). With the mental actions modeled well, the students are more likely to master these skills. Here is one example:

emotional bottlenecks

Prof. Ardizzone at Introductory Creative Writing, consisting of a weekly lecture and small-group writing workshops 3 times a week. (Photo courtesy of Indiana University)

The Decoding the Disciplines theory that we use in our article helps to make sense of emotional bottlenecks, starting with the first step: identifying the problem. Where are the students getting frustrated? What mental action on the part of the teacher helps the teacher to avoid the frustrating bottleneck?

Our article provides a case study of getting students to move through the emotional bottleneck related to the study of Mexican immigration to the U.S. It shows mental modeling through a metaphor of monarch butterfly migration. That way, instructors avoid the emotional resistance that undermines learning—whether their subject is history or any other field. Once instructors recognize emotional bottlenecks, they can direct students to the appropriate mental operations to avoid them. Without emotional obstruction or at least aware of where it might arise, students can start learning to climb without ropes.

By Joan Middendorf, Jolanta Mickute, and Tara Saunders

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