Reducing Stress in the Learning Environment: How Learning Occurs

Posted on Feb 22, 2017

Today, we begin an ATLE blog series, “Reducing Stress in the Learning Environment.”

You’ll recall that on Faculty Development Day last January we discussed three different topics—stress, marginalization, and literacies; as I reviewed the notes we took on the butcher paper, I noticed that we were consistently talking about how a variety of stressors inhibit our students’ learning.

Our notes also indicated that we already have much of the expertise and resources needed to address stress in our classrooms. While there are many things beyond our control, together we can consciously make our learning environments as accessible, welcoming, and open as possible.

This blog series is an effort to record for posterity some of the wisdom we shared together in January and make it accessible for future consultation. Each post will be accompanied by an opportunity for further discussion (either online or in-person).

Our series begins this week and next with Dr. Erin Fisher overviewing “How Learning Occurs” and then “How Stress Impacts Learning.” We’ll then follow up with posts addressing classroom dynamics, social factors, captioning, micro-aggressions, and literacies.

I look forward to our conversations.

Mathew Oakes, Liaison to the ATLE


Part 1, How Learning Occurs – Erin Fisher, Ph.D.

RVC Faculty can discuss the learning paradigm to which they ascribe and ask questions of Dr. Fisher in the RVC Faculty Group in EAGLE here.

Learning is generally defined as the “acquisition and modification of knowledge, skills, strategies, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors” (Schunk, 2007). There are multiple theoretical paradigms that attempt to explain how learning occurs. Let’s briefly review three.

Behavioral learning theory emphasizes the connections students make with the consequences of their behaviors; thus a behavioral approach to teaching would emphasize the role of the teacher in creating an environment that makes it more likely a certain behavior or response will occur. The most well-known aspect of this theory as it relates to teaching comes from B.F. Skinner (1954) and is called operant conditioning. Skinner proposed that learning primarily occurs via a consequence called reinforcement in which a desired behavior is strengthened via reinforcement or in which a desired behavior is weakened via a consequence called punishment. Teaching from a behavioral perspective means that students can learn anything we want them to, as long as we provide the right reinforcement when a student has correctly exhibited the behavior or skill. Accordingly, behaviorists feel that if a student is not achieving the educational objectives the teacher has set, the primary responsibility for this lies with the teacher. The student is always a passive participant. This view of the learner as passive is the opposite view of cognitive approaches, which view learners as active participants who construct their own understanding of events, stimuli, and information in their environment.

One such cognitive approach is known as the Information-Processing theory (Atkinson & Schiffrin, 1968). This perspective views human learning to be analogous to how computers work: we receive input, process it, and output the information, possibly in a new form. Information processing theorists are interested in understanding how we acquire new information, how we store and recall it, and how what we already know determines what and how we learn new information. Teaching from an information-processing perspective emphasizes giving students ample opportunities to engage with new information and consider how it is similar to or different from things they already know. According to this theory, successful teaching and learning occurs when students are engaged, focusing their attention, are required to reflect on what they are learning and what they already know, and when they are given multiple opportunities to rehearse what they have learned. If students are able to connect what they are learning with things they already know and find it meaningful, then learning is easier and more likely to “stick.” Thus, instruction from this perspective emphasizes the use of multiple examples of concepts and the development of metacognition.

Social-cognitive theory is, in many ways, a bridge between behaviorism and cognitivism in that while this paradigm acknowledges the role that reinforcement and rehearsal play in learning, it views the social settings in which these things occur as a mediator of both. The theory includes learning from modeling (the social) as well as thoughts, beliefs, expectations, judgments (the cognitive). The central component of the social-cognitive theory of learning is something referred to as the Triadic Reciprocal Causation Model (Bandura, 1997):

Personal characteristics include such things as goals, anxiety, self-efficacy, and metacognitive knowledge. Behavior would include things like study strategies and class attendance. Environment refers to an individual’s social and physical environment, such as their home life and relationships. A “real life” example of how this might play out in the classroom would look something like this:

Julia has to care for siblings because her mother has to work late (environmental/social influence) and can’t study for test resulting in a poor grade (behavioral outcome). The professor then lowers her expectations and, in turn, her behavior towards Julia (social influence). Julia begins to doubt her ability and lowers the goals she has for the class (personal factor) which then impacts the effort she puts forth toward studying for the next test (behavior) (Woolfolk, 2013).

Social-cognitive theory places significant emphasis on the importance of both the student and the teacher recognizing the interrelatedness of each of these components. From this perspective, successful teaching and learning requires that the teacher model the kinds of goal-setting and problem-solving they want to see in his/her students, assist them in becoming more self-regulated and self-confident by directly teaching them important skills like note taking, memory strategies, and time management.

Regardless of the theoretical framework one may ascribe to, it is clear that learning can occur in a multitude of ways and that teachers play a vital role in creating an environment in which expected behavior is reinforced, information is related to things the students already know, students are encouraged to be self-regulated and metacognitive, and all the influences on students’ classroom performance are given appropriate consideration.

RVC Faculty can discuss the learning paradigm to which they ascribe and ask questions of Dr. Fisher in the RVC Faculty Group in EAGLE here.

Erin Fisher, PhD, has taught psychology at Rock Valley College since 1998.



Atkinson, R.C. & Schiffrin, R.M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In K.W. Spence & J.T. Spence (Eds.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol 2). New York: Academic Press.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: WH Freeman/Times Books

Skinner, B. F. (1954). The science of learning and the art of teaching. Cambridge, Mass, USA, 99-113.

Woolfolk, A. (2013). Educational psychology (12th ed.). Columbus, OH: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.folk, A. (2012)

If you would like to contribute to the ATLE Blog, please contact Mathew Oakes (

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