Learning Curve

Developing Students’ Awareness of Their Comfort (and Terror) Zones

Beth A. Brennan

Adjunct Professor
Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2020

Citation: Beth A. Brennan, Developing Students’ Awareness of Their Comfort (and Terror) Zones, The Learning Curve (Winter/Spring 2020)

​Learning theory tells us that students learn best when they are challenged. In fact, if students encounter difficulties while learning—something as innocuous as straining to read text in a gray font or as complex as trying to remember a subject they’ve completely forgotten—they are more likely to learn the material.

As professors, we want to create “desirable difficulties” for students. When we push students so hard that they experience cognitive overload and are simply overwhelmed, their learning screeches to a halt. But when we rush to give them the answer without giving them a chance to struggle with retrieval, their learning similarly screeches to a halt. We want to avoid being
“helicopter professors” as much as we want to avoid channeling Professor Kingsfield.

Learning theory suggests there is a happy medium, but outside of a clinical setting—and in real-world classes with dozens of students—how are we supposed to know which difficulties are desirable and which push students too far?

My best answer reflects a combination of self-regulated learning theory and growth mindset. Either in class at the beginning of the semester or individually in student conferences, I introduce students to the idea of learning zones, contrasting them with comfort zones and terror zones. To do this, I draw a large circle and label it “comfort zone.” I then draw a second circle around the first circle and label it “learning zone.” Next, I draw a big circle around the second circle, and label it “terror zone.” If I can, I like to color the terror zone in red.

Students are generally familiar with the term “comfort zone.” For those who are not, it’s easy to explain: This is where you are when life is familiar. Work is familiar, you’re in a familiar place with a familiar culture, you’re speaking a language you know and understand. Let’s face it—it’s a nice place to be.

Unfortunately for those of us who love comfort, research tells us that to learn we have to move outside of our comfort zones. When we do, we will by definition be uncomfortable. We won’t understand what’s going on. We will think that what we are doing is not working. We will second-guess ourselves. We may feel some despair.

Rather than interpret those feelings as indicating that we are doing something incorrectly, though, we can train ourselves to interpret those feelings as signs that we are in the learning zone. At the very least, we can ask, “How uncomfortable am I? A little bit or a lot?” If our discomfort is manageable, we can take a deep breath and push ourselves more deeply into learning. If not, we can recognize that and retreat.

When we venture too far from our comfort zones—either because we are in a situation that is wholly unfamiliar or because something triggers an old memory of fear—we quickly veer from the learning zone into the terror zone. It’s hard—maybe impossible—to learn there. The noise in our heads and the pounding of our hearts interfere with our ability to process information.

Students’ terror triggers are personal to them. We cannot anticipate or avoid all of them. But we can teach students to discern the difference between feeling slightly uncomfortable—or even really uncomfortable—and feeling terrified. Knowing there is a difference, and learning to name the difference, can give students enough of a feeling of control that they may be able to withstand the discomfort, at least for a while. When we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable without rushing to reduce our discomfort, we expand our capacity for discomfort. As students expand their capacity for discomfort, they expand their capacity to learn.

Helping students reframe their struggles as “expanding their comfort zones” is another way for them—and us—to normalize their struggles. Many professors experience profound discomfort upon seeing students struggle. Rather than feel compelled to rescue them—or if we’re channeling Professor Kingsfield, to belittle them—we can instead try to shift their thinking from, “I’m never going to get this, it’s impossible,” to, “I feel like nothing is working—I must be outside of my comfort zone. But am I terrified?” We are not labeling students’ experiences; as autonomous beings, they are the only ones who can do that. But when we help students identify their inner experiences and make explicit the stories they are telling themselves, we help them to name the monster that is terrorizing them and make it a little less frightening.

Law school is stressful. Most students experience some discomfort as they learn new subjects or begin studying for the bar exam. Almost all will experience discomfort as they begin practicing law.

We are not mental health experts and we cannot reduce all of our students’ anxieties. But we can give them a tool to help them identify and expand their capacity for discomfort, allowing them to better navigate the unknown and learn more deeply.

References and Further Reading:
Benedict Carey, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens (2014).
Catherine M. Christopher, Normalizing Struggle, Ark. L. Rev. (forthcoming),
Elizabeth L. Bjork and Robert Bjork, Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning, in Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society 60-68 (Morton Ann Gernsbacher and James R. Pomerantz eds., 2nd ed. 2015).
Emily Grant, Helicopter Professors, 53 Gonz. L. Rev. 1 (2017).
Louis N. Schulze, Jr., Using Science to Build Better Learners: One School’s Successful Efforts to Raise its Bar Passage Rates in an Era of Decline, 68 J. Legal Educ. 230 (2019).

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