I had the chance to sit down with Dr. Trevor Belcher, Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Science at Kaplan University. We discussed his doctoral research on the concept of optimism among a research sample of people in chronic pain. We then turned our sights on whether the concept of optimism plays a role in the lives of students and teachers in the classroom.

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[Editor’s Note: Music was provided by Van Davis.]

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Hey Trevor!

Thank you for sharing your experiences and for reminding us of the importance of optimism!

I have a relative who had a very serious health issue who not only survived but now thrives. Her outlook is very inspiring, to say the least. We have an ongoing private joke that I wanted to share with you. Whenever it is cloudy, we look out the window and say, “Hey, I think it’s clearing up!”

Thanks again for sharing, Trevor! Wishing you a sunny day!

🙂

Thanks, Laurie! 🙂

Excellent interview, Will and Trevor. I really enjoyed listening. Actually, this podcast made me think of an article I just read in Harvard Magazine about “positive psychology” (a related topic to explanatory style optimism, I’m sure).

Great work all!

http://harvardmagazine.com/2007/01/the-science-of-happiness.html

Thanks for sharing, Michaella! I will take a look at that. 🙂

Cool link! Thanks!

So I think I see where we are headed with our Innovations Lab research… 🙂

Thank you for sharing your research and experiences with everyone.

My spouse, who has suffered from chronic pain for over ten years, is very optimist person. I think his optimistic attitude assists him each day as he tries to complete the simplest of tasks.

You are very welcome, Tammie! My best to you and your husband. ~Trevor 🙂

Will,

Thanks for sharing your interview with Associate Dean Trevor Belcher on optimism and chronic pain and how that carries over to learning. I’m not surprised that optimism helps a great deal with both chronic pain and with learning. Optimism gives us a reason to fight, to find solutions to our problems, to remain persistent.

Grandpa’s fighting spirit has most likely helped him survive a severe case of colon cancer. In 1992 he was diagnosed with colon cancer and had to have surgery to remove most of his colon. But the doctors had told him he would be lucky to live more than another 3-5 years, which meant that he likely would have died during my early high school years. Not only did he live long enough to see me graduate from high school, he lived long enough to see me begin my second year of college!

The lack of optimism in learning I am most familiar with is “math anxiety.” In the worst cases, math anxiety is downright mentally crippling–mentally crippling enough that students not only seem incapable of any kind of mathematical thinking but even any kind of thinking that everyday people use–that is, the kind of thinking that does not require knowing any math, just common sense. For instance, I’ve seen students with very severe math anxiety asking questions about how the class works (say, turning in homework) that I highly suspect they would have figured out without any difficulty if this class had been a psychology class instead of a math class.

I’ve taught some remedial math courses full of students with such severe math anxiety that even those questions on assignments and exams that most math students find easy–even those students in an average remedial math class–were virtually impossible for them. In short, in the worst cases of math anxiety, students may act as if they are incapable of any kind of thinking, mathematical or not.

I suspect that their fear of math is so strong that they try to avoid that math class as much as possible by either disengaging entirely or by faking efforts to pass (say, they may still participate in class but make very little effort to pass–maybe they are hoping that even minimal efforts to try to pass will make their professors sympathic enough toward them to give them a passing grade?).

Speaking of optimism in learning, I know we mathematicians wouldn’t have gotten as far as we have without our own persistence. One cannot study advanced mathematics, which is quite abstract, and remain an easy quitter. The following discussion thread on sci.math gives some examples of frustrations by mathematicians, including myself, in studying mathematics:

http://mathforum.org/kb/message.jspa?messageID=3702352&tstart=0.

The link is to the first message in this thread, but you will have to check the replies to find what I am talking about. It is not a long discussion thread. In fact, I do remember reading somewhere that one reason that many employers like mathematicians is their persistence.

Jonathan Groves

Implication: suppose a student does poorly on a test. Teacher could follow up, to encourage student to take an optimistic/growth mindset. For example, send them an email, asking how they studied, how they prepared. Suggest ways they could change, to do better in the future. Engage the student in a conversation.

Maybe bring the student into a study group.

Does this make sense?

THanks for the podcast! Very interesting!