Academic journal article College Student Journal

Considering Shame and Its Implications for Student Learning

Academic journal article College Student Journal

Considering Shame and Its Implications for Student Learning

Article excerpt

Research evidence is accumulating to suggest that shame can be implicated in important ways in student adjustment to the learning environment. Student survey data spring-fall 2010 suggest that shame is associated with variables thought to be closely related to student learning--sense of community, burnout and achievement goals--and underline the significance of what Nathanson has called the compass of shame in understanding students' struggles with shame. The paper closes with suggestions from the literature on dealing with student shame in the classroom and in academic advising.


This paper is an effort to bring together and evaluate some of the more important findings regarding the way shame can be impacted in students' experience of the learning environment--to get a better sense of what scenarios involving shame might look like as we encounter them and how they affect the student's adjustment. Shame has become a powerful variable in the psychological literature, closely related to certain forms of externalizing and internalizing behavior, aggression, social anxiety, immune-related health problems and psychopathology, most prominently, depression (Mills 2005). Current research suggests that shame impacts on student learning (Bond, 2009; Thompson, Altmann, & Davidson, 2004; Thompson, Sharp & Alexander 2008; Trout, 2006; Turner & Husman, 2008; Turner & Schallert 2001).

The experience of shame is evidenced in feelings of exposure to an external or internal judgmental "observing other," "a sense of shrinking or of 'being small,' of sinking into the floor," a feeling that the situation in which one is embedded is out of control (Tangney, Miller, Flicker, Barlow, 1996, pp. 1256-1258). Shame is a threat to the self, a suggestion that the self may be "incompetent" (Nathanson, 1992, p. 209).

The self, writes Nathanson (1992), is an "experiential integration" a summation of our invariant experiences" (p. 206). It is founded from the first in the individual's capacity to initiate action--"action that can be carried out from beginning to end and remembered as a personally written script" (p. 208). The self is thus composed of "bundles" of "scenes," "subsumed under the umbrella of me" (p. 208), bundles of scenes, compared and categorized on the basis of what we take to be shared patterns, and organized to form our library of experience with which we encounter the world (p. 162).

For affect/script theorists, shame is an innate affect, an experience of some impediment to ongoing positive affect (when I desire that positive affect to continue) (Nathanson, 1992, p. 209). I initiate an action. I experience the pleasure of "looking or doing or communing" (p. 210); suddenly the interest or enjoyment is cut short. I am in the midst of shame affect.

   Shame interrupts, halts, takes over,
   inconveniences, trips up, makes
   incompetent anything that had previously
   been interesting or
   enjoyable.... While it is clear that
   shame affect is triggered by experiences
   that have nothing to do with
   competence, shame produces an
   awareness of an incompetent self
   (1992, pp. 209-211).

I experience shame when my skills do not prove adequate to the tennis match in which I am engaged, when my accomplishments do not match the face I put forward, when I find my interest in a member of the opposite sex is not reciprocated, when what I thought was my understanding of course material receives a poor grade. As such, shame is "an intrinsic instrument of isolation and withdrawal" (p. 181) recognized physically in a "sudden loss of tone in the muscles of the neck, causing the head to droop and the eyes to drop from contact" (p. 141).

Shame is most problematic in the case of proneness to shame, in the case of a history of shame that has been internalized such that the individual is sensitized to shame in his or her environment (Nathanson, 1992). …

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