June 24th, 2015

The Power of Language to Influence Thought and Action


female professor talking with students.

Language influences thought and action. The words we use to describe things—to ourselves and others—affects how we and they think and act. It’s good to remind ourselves that this powerful influence happens in all kinds of situations and most certainly with language related to teaching and learning.

Here are some big ones that come to mind.

Teachers talk about having papers “to correct.” They head into the grading process looking for errors, which they usually find, but is it valid to assume that every paper will contain errors? More significant is the assumption that it’s the teacher’s job to correct them. Students are the ones who made those errors. They stand to learn more from their mistakes if they’re the ones who do the correcting, using teacher feedback to help them identify and fix the mistakes.Teaching Professor Blog

Grades play a powerful role in the education experience of students, and teachers are a central part of that process. We try to correct students when they assert that we “give” them grades; no, they “earn” the grades, which they do, but we decide what they’ve earned. “I didn’t give you that grade, you earned it” recognizes the student’s contribution but implies nothing more than a recording role for us.

Often students feel (sometimes with justification) that teachers purposely make things more difficult than they should be. After passing back a quiz on which my students had done poorly, one quipped, “I’ll bet you’ll be celebrating after class.” I didn’t get it, so I asked for clarification. The response? “You really got us on that quiz.” I heard about a tactic in a session at The Teaching Professor Conference that turns that thinking on its head. Imagine a student getting this message on the first day of class: “I start out assuming every person in this class has an A. My job is to support your efforts to keep it.”

I have blogged, written elsewhere, and spoken regularly about the strong, authoritarian, directive language used to describe policies in our syllabus, wondering how that language affects the motivation to learn and whether it reflects a belief that the only effective way teachers can take charge is with commands. The language is more collaborative when the directive “you,” such as in “you will do the assigned reading and come to class prepared,” becomes “we.” In this case the change in voice is accurate. Students and teachers should do the reading and arrive in class prepared.

However, language that inaccurately characterizes the teacher-student relationship does not convey the authenticity needed to establish genuine relationships with students. “We” are not going to be taking the exams, writing the papers, or working in groups. Those are student activities. And “we” are not going to be a community of learners just because the teacher says we are. More accurately, the teacher can invite, but not force, students to share in the learning adventures of the course.

And then there’s the common plan that students have to “go over” their notes when they study for their exams. Most of them are better advised to “get into” those notes, as in really engage with them. Then we wish them “good luck” on their exams and projects. Are we suggesting that luck plays a role in successful academic work?

Sometimes when trying to get students to remember content from a previous part of the course, I’ve heard teachers say, “Remember? We talked about this just before the last exam.” This implies that course content is organized around exam events, which adds to the importance of those assessments and doesn’t connect content chunks in ways that showcase how they’re related.

And then there’s all the content we have to “cover.” When there’s a lot to cover, we’re usually on a mission to move through it quickly. We cover a lot of ground in most of our courses with students strung out behind us, many struggling to keep up and most missing what makes the places we’re passing through interesting and memorable. But we’ve done our job—covered the content. Does this kind of coverage conceal or reveal what we want students to understand?

Language influences thought and action. Examples abound. Please share those that come to mind so that we can use them to explore how they influence what we think and how we act.

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  • Karen M.

    Great article. Language shapes our experiences in so many ways. When a student asks "where did I lose the marks?" the implication is that the blank piece of paper is perfect; any attempt to add content can be penalized. But I also hear faculty say "I take X marks off for citation errors or spelling or whatever." So the implication is that the student's work is perfect, but the faculty member has a series of arbitrary rules he or she is applying.

  • cognitioneducation

    I like the example used regarding paper assessment: "correct" seems correct to use when you are evaluating a draft to give feedback, with the expectation that students will rewrite, but it does become easy to overextend the word without really thinking about the motivational implications therein. I like the Canadian vernacular of "marking" papers – the term captures the fact that we are giving feedback and assigning a value judgement in the way of a grade, but it doesn't come loaded with implications of assumed failure. If looking for a good all-purpose term, I think that's a wise way to go.

  • diazcarlos

    I recommend the book "Creating cultures of thinking" by Ron Ritchhart, which deals with the 8 cultures of the classroom, and deals with the language plus many other topics, powerful reading.

  • bridgetarend

    To expand this to teaching in general, we talk about teaching "loads" and say, "I have to go teach now." One great instructor at my institution says, "I GET to go teach now" as a way to shift the mindset.

  • Rachelle

    Wonderful. I heard you speak about "go over" and "cover" years ago at a conference, and have been repeating the lesson about language ever since. I'm happy to have a few more messages to spread.

  • Perry Shaw

    Great article. Questionable language is endemic in our teaching.
    Beyond the examples given take the word "grade" which implies that we must compare student against student, and then smooth everything into a curve (a bell curve?). I suspect that "evaluation" is stronger in that it technically refers to working out what of "value" is in the work.

  • Bird

    I completely agree with this author. The language which we choose focuses the lens through which we view our experience. Something as common as the terms "you have to do …." mandatory, drudgery — changed to "you get to…" creates an opportunity.

  • HurleyS

    Good points. I always try to make sure my words say what I mean. I have been trying to come up with a replacement for "good luck" when students are taking a test (mine or someone else's) and what I usually say is "I hope you do well" but I am not sure that says it correctly. What I would like to say is "I hope you have prepared yourself and are ready to give your best accounting of your understanding of the subject", but that is a bit long and not what they want to hear just before a test. Any suggestions for a quick word of encouragement?

    • Buck

      How about, "I look forward to reading what you have to say about this." or "I'm excited to learn what you've been thinking about this material." Something that conveys that the students' thoughts really are important to you, and that you aren't just expecting them to parrot back what you've been saying.

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  • Eric Démoré

    One that gets me is the kind of statement that sounds like, "Oh, this class isn't as quick as last term," or "This book isn't right for that group."

    It's like saying "Belgians aren't good runners." Well, some probably aren't, but many probably are.

    Blanket statements negate the individualities that exist in every classroom.

    -@EricDemore http://demore.ca

  • Matt Birkenhauer

    Great article, Maryellen. I especially like the way you address the language we use in our syllabi–and what that conveys (consciously or not) to our students.

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  • Sandy White

    I think this is so important for educators to keep in mind. So many of us can get frustrated and lack understanding at to why ESL students are struggling to comprehend our lessons. If we accept that language is causing their brains to work differently, we may experience more success! http://www.culturalcandor.com/blogs/the-correlati