Explanatory Power of the Hierarchy of Student Needs

In a previous post, I wrote about how a Lisa Bejarano’s tweet led me to adapt Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to better describe the needs that students have in our classrooms.

Since that time, I’ve been thinking about this hierarchy of student needs a lot. I’ve been trying to find scholarly writings on the subject (haven’t found much), and I’ve given several talks featuring these ideas. I’m ready to share these ideas more widely because I think these ideas could be much more fruitful than I originally realized.

A Hierarchy of Student Needs

Hierarchy of Student Needs in the Classroom, adapted from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg
Fig 1. Mapping of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to a hierarchy of student needs in the classroom. Image based on https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg

According to several colleagues who are psychologists, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a well-respected theory for human motivations. It’s included in most introductory psychology courses. One colleague told me that the theory is so sensible that he finds it difficult to imagine how it might not be true.

Here is how each of category of human needs might translate into students needs in our classes.

Physiological. Thankfully, many of us are blessed to teach in relatively comfortable environments where we are properly sheltered from the environment. Sometimes, the air conditioning makes my classroom too hot or too cold, but by and large I don’t have to worry about my Mudd students’ physiological needs, with the exception that they are often sleep deprived. However, we should remember that far too many students in the United States are food insecure and worry about having a comfortable place to call home.

Safety. Maslow’s original hierarchy had to do with personal and financial safety. While you wouldn’t think that personal safety is an issue that we instructors have to worry about, we must not forget that sexual violence is a big problem at many colleges and universities around the country.

Besides the need for safety from bodily harm, I think there are two other forms of safety to consider in the mathematical classroom: emotional and intellectual. Lisa’s tweet shows that her student isn’t afraid of being made fun of, being criticized, or being outed to others (except for the students’ mother!). That kind of emotional safety is crucial for students to be open to learning in a classroom. For example, would a student who wears a hijab feel safe in your classroom from ridicule or teasing? Respect for others begins with the instructor. Does the instructor make jokes that single out certain students or groups of students? Does the instructor speak disparagingly about certain groups of people (intentionally or not) or send messages about which groups of students are more or less competent (intentionally or not)? How does the instructor respond to microaggressions and “larger” instances of aggressions, perpetrated by students or the instructor?

All of the protests that have been taking place at colleges and universities over the last few months have underscored the fact that students need emotional safety. It’s disheartening to see how some people are disparaging the need for “safe spaces” by equating them to cocoons where students can never get hurt by disagreements or criticism. The truth is that at many colleges and universities, students of color and other marginalized groups of students go to school in fear of ridicule and scorn. Clearly, that is not an optimal environment in which students can learn.

Intellectual safety is possible when you feel that your ideas are valued by others even if they are incorrect or there is disagreement. Instructors wield a lot of power and respect in the classroom, and that power and respect can be misused. For example, one student shared with me his painful experience asking his professor a question in class. Students were working on a worksheet in groups, and this student had a question that none of his classmates could answer. The student raised his hand, and the professor came over and exclaimed “Oh c’mon!” in condescending and dismissive tone. According to the student, the professor’s response was so loud that other students in the room noticed and a few gasped in shock. The student got into a verbal altercation with the professor about why the professor felt the need to get mad when asked that question. Things did not turn out well. The student was very discouraged and highly unmotivated to learn in class. The student failed the class.

This anecdote reminds me that the way that I respond to incorrect answers and student questions is extremely important. No matter what teachers say to students, the ugly truth is that, yes, students can ask stupid questions. However, it is usually not appropriate to let students know that they have asked a question that they should be able to answer given what they know, especially when students are not confident in their own abilities. I may not respond as severely as the professor in the anecdote above, but I might still send subtle signals to students just from my body language or tone. I’ve learned to develop a poker face that hides my internal reactions to students’ answers or questions. I try to react to all students’ questions and answers in the same way. (That means that when I get a correct answer I also have to modulate my reaction so that I don’t smile approvingly when I get a correct answer and then not smile when I get an incorrect answer.) By the way, this poker-face-approach also has the nice side effect that students don’t know whether their answers are right or not and so I am able to more authentically press them for their justifications.

If you use group work in your classes, intellectual safety is a prerequisite for students to participate. Group work can be scary because it’s an opportunity for students to reveal to each other what they know and understand. I learned this lesson in my course on partial differential equations last semester. On an exit ticket one day, a student wrote this: “Right now, I’m insecure enough about solving problems that the pressure of group work makes me shut down, which only makes it worse.” This student’s lack of intellectual safety prevented him/her from working with others on in-class tasks. Ouch! I felt horrible.

It’s inevitable that students will have different levels of preparation and skill in our classes. What we need to do is to make it clear to our students that there are many different ways to be successful in our classes. It’s not just speed of calculation that makes one better at math. One can be great at observing patterns. One can be great at visualizing functions. One can be great at generalizing ideas. However, if most of our mathematical tasks are procedural and computational, then we risk collapsing mathematical proficiency into a single axis. Valuing all of those different axes is difficult to do in every single task that we assign, but I think it is very possible to make explicit the different ways that students can be successful in mathematics at different points during a semester or unit. (Also, I have written here about how speed and automaticity are often conflated.)

One important thing I’ve also realized since my last posting is that different groups of students can have very different needs in my classroom. It is well-known that men tend have more confidence in their ability to complete tasks based on their own assessment of the necessary skills whereas women tend to doubt themselves even when they have the same skill level. This effect therefore leads to a tendency for women to feel less intellectually safe in a mathematics classroom than men.

Love/Belonging. One could perhaps talk about love in a way that makes sense in the mathematics classroom, but I choose instead of focus on students’ sense of belonging since that seems to me a more straightforward idea. (Please see my previous post about radical inclusivity.) I believe that there at least three different levels of belonging that are relevant here. Students need to feel that they belong to (1) the mathematics classroom, (2) to a larger community of practice of mathematicians, and to (3) any groups that they’ve been assigned to.  (The latter will only apply to you if you do group work in your classes.)

I think that there are lots of things that instructors can do to help students feel a sense of belonging. If you care about your students and look after their well-being, you are probably doing things for them that increase their sense of belonging. And, I bet that many of us do these things instinctively without realizing how much they positively affect our students. Here are some examples.

  • Simply by learning students’ names (and learning how to pronounce them correctly), we give our students a sense that they belong in our class.
  • A teacher’s sense of humor can sometimes be a great tool for helping students feel a sense of belonging–when you’re in on a joke that only those in your class can understand, that helps you feel like you’re part of a community. This video of a manatee features prominently in all my classes. It’s silly, but it’s also memorable and super effective at building community.
  • Group work can lead to amazing results, but when implemented poorly it can also lead to disastrous results. When left untreated, status issues in a group of students can lead to students feeling excluded from the group. (Lani Horn has suggestions for addressing status issues here.)

As with emotional/intellectual safety, I have thought a lot about how different groups of students experience different levels of belonging in my classrooms. Any groups of students that are poorly represented in my classroom will naturally feel like they don’t belong to the group as much as the majority students. Therefore, underrepresented students will tend to feel like they belong less than majority students. Underrepresented students will probably also feel less belonging to the mathematics community as a whole because they don’t see many people like them getting tenure, attending conferences, winning professional awards, publishing research.

The messages that we send to our students about belonging are subtle but important. Sometimes we have the right intentions but we do things that make students feel like they don’t belong. For example, Lauren Aguilar, Greg Walton and Carl Weiman point out that if you continually tell a student that she can succeed and you don’t tell that to other students, that student might begin to wonder whether you doubt her ability to succeed. Or if you set up additional office hours and make a special effort to invite women and minorities to attend, you might be sending the message that you think all women and minority students have less adequate preparation.

Esteem. The Wikipedia page on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs describes esteem as “a need to feel respected… to have self-esteem and self-respect.” The analog of esteem in the mathematics classroom is a student’s self-concept as a learner of mathematics. Every time a student is presented with a mathematical task, that student’s self-concept is activated in the form of an appraisal of her/his own abilities as a learner of mathematics based on prior achievements, comparisons with peers’ abilities, and perceptions of the mathematical task at hand. That appraisal of success at the task gives the student confidence or reluctance to take on the task. When I taught high school, I noticed that students with low self-concept would become disruptive or disengaged when presented with a task that they thought they would not be able to complete. These behaviors, unconsciously or consciously, help the student avoid the possibility of failure and public or private shaming from the teacher so as to preserve his/her self-esteem. (I found this old blog post from 2009 that gives a specific example of this.) At Harvey Mudd, instead of disengaging or becoming disruptive, students with low-concept will procrastinate on their work and rationalize their poor performance as due to lack of time devoted to the task.

It is important to note that self-concept correlates very strongly with student performance, and may be one of the variables that is most strongly correlated to student performance. (See John Hattie’s book Visible Learning.) One of the most important ways that we can attend to students’ self-concept is by using formative assessment to have a very detailed understanding of students’ skills and understanding, and to give them tasks that are appropriate to their level of mathematical development.

Self-actualization. Ok, if you’re like me, you probably approach this word with a little hesitation about sounding self-helpy…. But, the according to Maslow himself, self-actualization refers to the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. That makes a lot of sense to me. When one has achieved a certain level of success with mathematics I think it is natural to wonder what else one can achieve and then to try to do it. That need to test one’s boundaries is a wonderful human characteristic.

Maslow theorized that the four foundational needs (physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem) are “deficiency” or “basic” (see Fig 1) in the sense that those needs must be met before an individual will strongly desire any higher level needs. In other words, if I do not have enough food or water to survive, I am going to spend most of my energy making sure that I can meet those needs first before I think about my physical safety and love/belonging. People who don’t have these deficiency needs met will feel anxious. I imagine that the same is true about students’ needs in the classroom. If a student doesn’t feel intellectually safe, it’s a safe bet that the student will feel anxious and that anxiety will weigh on the students’ ability to learn.

How the Hierarchy of Student Needs Relates to Equity and Inclusion

Since my last post, I’ve thought a lot about how this hierarchy of student needs relates to equity and inclusion. The key insight that I come to over and over again is how different groups of students in my classes have different levels of needs. Majority students tend to come to my classes with a more secure sense of intellectual and emotional safety and sense of belonging to the classroom. Perhaps that is one reason why we often find differences in educational outcomes when we aggregate students into different groups.

One of the unsolved questions in education research is why certain classroom interventions seem to have disproportionate effects for different groups of students. In their paper “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” Freeman, et al., present one of the strongest pieces of evidence to date about the positive effects of active learning:

“In addition to providing evidence that active learning can improve undergraduate STEM education, the results reported here have important implications for future research. The studies we metaanalyzed represent the first-generation of work on undergraduate STEM education, where researchers contrasted a diverse array of active learning approaches and intensities with traditional lecturing. Given our results, it is reasonable to raise concerns about the continued use of traditional lecturing as a control in future experiments … The data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the continued use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields.”

A general consensus is building that many active learning strategies improve learning outcomes for all students, but that they also improve learning outcomes disproportionately for women and underrepresented students. Here are three examples of documented cases of exactly that:

(Each of these articles is worthwhile to read. I would appreciate it if others can point out additional examples of this kind of research.)

Of course, these studies are empirical. They observe that these disproportionately positive effects occur for disenfranchised or marginalized groups of students, but they can’t explain why that happens. Could this hierarchy of student needs be that explanation?

Suppose you have a teacher who implements group work effectively in a mathematics classroom. In this scenario, imagine what happens to a woman who initially comes into the class doubting her abilities. During the course of doing mathematics with other students in class, this woman realizes that others are having the same struggles too, or that she’s actually more capable than she realized. That realization increases her sense of intellectual safety, sense of belonging to the class, and self-concept as a learner of mathematics. The same thing could happen if an instructor used clickers/plickers/etc in class along with questions that generate meaningful dialogue and surface common misconceptions.

Suppose you have a teacher who is really great at orchestrating classroom discourse. Imagine an African-American student in this teacher’s class, who has received lots of signals that previous teachers have doubted his mathematical ability. This teacher is great at making sure every students’ idea is taken seriously and is worthy of consideration. One day, the student tosses out an idea that some students initially dismiss, but the teacher carries it out to its logical conclusion and finds it to be innovative and correct. The student’s self-concept as a learner of mathematics increases as he begins to realize that perhaps he’s skilled in mathematics in a way that he and others have never appreciated, and he begins to call into question all of the previous signals he’s received from others. Other students take notice of his abilities too, and that increases his sense of belonging in the class.

I’m sure you could come up with similar scenarios too.

Once we accept that there are certain teaching practices (for example, active learning strategies) that happen to be very effective also happen to promote greater equity and inclusion, we arrive at this question: Is inclusive teaching the same as effective teaching? I believe that this statement is true, but only in part.

Inclusive teaching is a set of principles, goals, and practices, grounded in research, experience, and commitments to social justice. A large subset of these principles, goals, and practices could easily also be described as effective teaching. And in fact, it may be difficult to distinguish one from the other simply by looking at a sample of teaching practices. (I wrote more about this here.)

Inclusive teaching adds to effective teaching a framework for understanding why teaching is effective, along with an intentionality of producing more equitable outcomes for students. A faculty member may teach effectively without consciously considering inclusiveness, but by being more intentional about the desired outcomes of learning and designing every aspect of the learning to address students’ needs, they could help to create even better results.

These ideas seem so natural to me and yet I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. There is more to uncover and think about, I’m sure. For example, if this hierarchy of students needs can help to explain why different teaching strategies lead to different results for different groups of students, then perhaps researchers should measure students’ sense of safety, belonging, and self-concept along with their learning outcomes when they compare different interventions.


Added Aug 2016: Here are some references that connect to this topic.

Baran, E., Correia, A. P., & Thompson, A. “Tracing successful online teaching in higher education: Voices of exemplary online teachers.” Teachers College Record, 115:3 (2013), 1-41.

Call, Carolyne M. “Defining Intellectual Safety in the College Classroom.” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 18.3 (2007): 19-37.

Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N. and Brzustoski, P. “Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap.” Science 324.5925 (2009): 400-403.

Cook, J.E., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J. and Cohen, G.L. “Chronic threat and contingent belonging: protective benefits of values affirmation on identity development.” Journal of personality and social psychology 102.3 (2012): 479.

Demirdag, Seyithan. “Management of Errors in Classrooms: Student Mistakes and Teachers.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 5:7 (2015): 77-83.

Edmondson, Amy. “Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams.” Administrative science quarterly 44.2 (1999): 350-383.

Guzzetti, Barbara J., and Wayne O. Williams. “Gender, text, and discussion: Examining intellectual safety in the science classroom.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 33.1 (1996): 5-20.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Giffen, C. J., Blair, S. S., Rouse, D. I., & Hyde, J. S. “Closing the social class achievement gap for first-generation students in undergraduate biology.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 106:2 (2014), 375.

Johnson, Christopher M. “A survey of current research on online communities of practice.” The internet and higher education 4.1 (2001): 45-60.

Kolb, Alice Y., and David A. Kolb. “Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education.” Academy of management learning & education 4.2 (2005): 193-212.

Kunc, Norman. “The need to belong: Rediscovering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” Restructuring for caring and effective education: An administrative guide to creating heterogeneous schools (1992): 25-39.

Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Romero, C., Smith, E. N., Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). “Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement.” Psychological Science 26:6 (2015): 784-793.

Schrader, Dawn E. “Intellectual safety, moral atmosphere, and epistemology in college classrooms.” Journal of Adult Development 11.2 (2004): 87-101.

Sherman, D.K., Hartson, K.A., Binning, K.R., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Taborsky-Barba, S., Tomassetti, S., Nussbaum, A.D. and Cohen, G.L. “Deflecting the trajectory and changing the narrative: how self-affirmation affects academic performance and motivation under identity threat.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104:4 (2013) 591.

Steuer, Gabriele, Gisela Rosentritt-Brunn, and Markus Dresel. “Dealing with errors in mathematics classrooms: Structure and relevance of perceived error climate.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 38.3 (2013): 196-210.

Walton, Gregory M., and Geoffrey L. Cohen. “A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students.” Science 331.6023 (2011): 1447-1451.

Yeager, David S., and Gregory M. Walton. “Social-psychological interventions in education They’re not magic.” Review of Educational Research 81.2 (2011): 267-301.

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