Moving Past Survival

Shari Wilson shares tips on motivating students (and yourself) while teaching core courses.

July 17, 2006

I've come to realize that to some degree, college students come to core classes motivated -- or not. For achievers, the "carrot" may be external (for example, pressure from parents or the belief that a degree equals a good job) or internal (for example, a desire to do well, or the sense of satisfaction that comes when accomplishing a goal). Although professors may hope to remove obstacles to success, innate personality and other environmental factors may influence learning more than what we are able to offer with the short number of hours we are in contact with students. Yet, there are some tactics that seem to encourage real engagement in undergraduate core classes:

1. Align curriculum with departmental goals. A detailed syllabus with clear grading information, and a course outline with deadlines can help inexperienced undergraduate students prioritize. Although professors often like to state that a course outline is "subject to change," altering assignments or changing deadlines at the last minute can confuse students and weaken their confidence in the instructor. When polled, 90 percent of my undergraduate students revealed that it really bothered them when an instructor made a change in the lesson plans without giving them a few days advance notice. Resentments formed and students felt less motivated -- after all, as one student put it, "it's obvious that he's on a power trip and we're his guinea pigs." Not the most positive influence on a burgeoning student-professor relationship.

2. Set and reinforce goals. In addition to setting achievable goals, instructors who reinforce standards often get the outcome they desire. Having to spell out grading and attendance policies sounds juvenile; yet undergraduate students often test boundaries -- especially with new instructors. Giving in to students' requests to soften assignment requirements undermines an instructor's authority and, in effect, leaves inexperienced students in charge of their own education. And it's not only professors who see this as a weak strategy; 90 percent of my undergraduate students stated that an instructor should never cave in to students' in-class requests. As one student put it, that professor "would immediately be seen as a pushover." An instructor who alters requirements in class while lecturing may be in danger of losing control of the class. In the rare case that I decide to change assignments required for the course, I never allow that negotiation in class. Instead, I might issue an updated course outline for students to follow. Also, if students question their grades during class, or after class, I immediately make an appointment for them to see me in my office. I never want to make their grades other students' business; or worse, soften my requirements and change a grade while other students are present.

3. Find a common ground. Being curious about students' interests can help establish a better working relationship. I scour census sheets and online faculty resources to find out more about my students. Not only can I view their majors, I can also find out what their grade level is and how long they've been attending the university. At one campus, I had an early morning composition course full of pre-med students. After reviewing an article on facial transplants, I asked students to consider the pros and cons of this controversial procedure. Many chose this as an alternate topic for their first essay; I was rewarded with better writing simply because the students were interested in the topic. At another campus where I taught, students' scores from placement tests were available to faculty. Rather than use this information to lessen expectations or pigeonhole students, instructors I knew often used this information to carve out time to review problem areas throughout the semester. I also do what I can to use real-life examples without revealing inappropriate details about myself. This week, while working with freshman-level composition students, I outlined the topic, "I am sloppy." After writing on the board that I often left my dishes in the sink for three days, students leaped at the chance to add their own supporting details. Although I am interested in relating on a human level with students, I am careful not to reveal inappropriate details about my life. After overhearing two students describe what their previous instructor had revealed about her sex life to her students, I vowed to always keep an appropriate level of respect in my classrooms.

4. Give students a choice. Allowing students choices when appropriate can be a way to motivate. I offer students three or four possible topics for each paper; a higher interest level translates into more time spent on research and writing. I also allow students alternate topics for their last paper -- if they've received my approval ahead of time. One professor I know gives two comparable assignments; students are allowed to choose the one that attracts them the most. In the last two years, I've been experimenting with a portfolio-type grading system for English composition. Advisory essay grades given out during the semester assure students of their progress. At the end of the semester, students are allowed to choose the best four out of five papers to present in a portfolio. This helps students keep from feeling overwhelmed; instead, they can focus more intently on rewriting a limited number of essays. Having a choice allows students to take responsibility and keeps them from feeling as though they are pawns in game called "instruction."

5. Make it relevant. Helping students see how information "translates" outside of class encourages them to work harder. After all, they are not only working for an A in your course, but also investing in more rewarding lifestyles and careers. On a day when we work with thesis statements, I may show students how to write a subject line in a memo that their boss will not only read -- but that may influence his or her actions. When we work on claims and supporting details, I may have them draft a proposal to a boss to ask for a new bank of computers. Suddenly English does not seem like such a waste of time. I sometimes quiz students to find out if they think they might apply what they learned that day to real-life situations. Depending on the day's lesson, students' answers may vary from something as silly as "impressing girls at parties" with their knowledge to "putting together a cover letter so the hiring manager will give me a job."

6. Check for learning. Assessing students' retention through in-class exercises, quizzes, tests, and in my case, written work done in class, can seem didactic; however, this not only helps instructors gauge a student's progress, but also helps students see how they are performing academically. Something as simple as looking up and making eye contact when lecturing is a way to check and see if information is getting through. Of the undergraduate students I polled, every one said that they hated when an instructor "droned on and on." One of my best students told me that he "wished the instructor would have included the class more." I realize that we instructors have a difficult job to do. Sometimes the lessons are dry; there is no obvious way to spice things up. Yet having students work in groups, hand back index cards with comments, break into informal speech and debate teams, or log on to an interactive chat online can be ways to bring them into the bigger discussion. At the very least, I break up long lectures with in-class exercises and handouts. In one early morning class, I actually asked students to stand up and "vote with their feet" on an issue. Physical movement not only kept them awake, but also generated comments. With the idea of encouraging research skills, I've given students the chance to do primary research in one of my courses. After separating into small groups and getting direction on how to develop a survey, students were instructed to go to the quad on campus and quiz other students on their study habits. The result was a more involved in-class discussion the next day -- and some research to be used in later written work.

7. Aim high. While first teaching developmental English composition at an urban community college, I was given a peer evaluation by a senior professor. He confronted me in the hallway after class and said, "You're teaching compare and contrast, and classification modes to students at this level?" I replied, "Sure. Aren't we supposed to?" He indicated that students at this level were often taught more simple modes of writing, such as descriptive, narrative, or definitive writing. I assured him that I'd already had my students writing descriptive papers, but felt they could now perform these more complex modes. When I showed him samples of my students' more complex work, he said, "I'm surprised you've had this degree of success with them." Although I had read the departmental curriculum, I hadn't checked with other more experienced instructors to see how they achieved those goals. Unknowingly, I may have aimed too high -- yet this particular group of students took suggestion better than most. At the university where I now teach freshman-level English, I occasionally start a lesson with, "I know this is just review for you" and then go over a topic they should have learned in high school. Students later confess that my confidence about their academic background gave them the chance to save face and review without embarrassment -- even if they remembered nothing about the topic.

8. Praise good work. When polled, 80 percent of my undergraduate students said that not receiving positive comments was a de-motivator. One student responded, "It makes me feel as if the instructor only cares about my making little mistakes." Another said that after receiving only negative comments on an essay, "I felt that my writing was bad and then I usually did poorly on future assignments." As an instructor, I feel I have the responsibility to write both positive and negative comments on students' papers. With short writing exercises, I often highlight what works -- and write comments in the margins. I have noticed that colleagues who score high with students may make general verbal comments on how the class did -- but often focus on the positive. After all, if every student did poorly on a particular assignment, it's often best to check to see if the goals were attainable -- and if students were properly prepared rather than berate the student population. Making comments about individual work while passing back assignments can be destructive. My undergraduates indicated that they did not appreciate receiving comments about how they did on an assignment while an instructor was handing back paperwork in class. "It's rude and degrading," said one student. Even if the comment is positive, it can create strife among classmates. When one instructor made comments about how another student did on an assignment within earshot of the class, a student who witnessed this "dressing down" confided that she was shocked.

9. Don't apologize for your subject. Early in my career, I sometimes made negative comments about teaching a core class in my discipline. This form of kowtowing may have been motivated by a desire to please my students and win their confidence. With an attitude of "we're all in this together," or "it's an ugly job, but someone has to do it," we may seem to be developing rapport -- but it's at the cost of losing real interest in the subject. Professors are experts. We know our subjects. We are prepared. Yet when we come to class and suggest, "let's get through it," we're literally telling our students that not only do we not care about our topic -- they shouldn't either. When I think about the instructors who inspired me most in college, they were men and women who were enthused about their subject and never apologized for their area of specialty.

10. Don't compare students' attitudes to your own. A colleague of mine who taught business at a private university constantly made scathing comments about his students' seeming lack of effort. "I can't believe you guys don't know this stuff!" he would shout at them. Time and time again, he referred to his own college days -- how he went above and beyond what was expected by his professor, excelled in his subject, and earned stellar grades. The dean finally called him into his office and confronted him, saying, "These students are not you. You majored in this subject; of course you were interested in it. They are taking this as a requirement. Lighten up." As my colleague sat there speechless, the dean continued, "And anyway, don't you ever remember taking courses you didn't like? Try to think back to when you were 20." This is not to say that we can't expect students to achieve the goals we set out for them. But it helps to recognize that there are sometimes years -- or even decades of difference in context and values between us and our students.

11. Show students how adults act. When an instructor is late, he or she instills that behavior in students. If that instructor has an attendance policy, it will be nearly impossible to enforce. Although I have colleagues who find that they don't need to dress professionally to lead students well, I've found that I personally feel more ready to work when I do dress for work. And because I list capped non-alcoholic beverages as appropriate for the classroom, I feel free to bring bottled water to class. When I assign a timed writing in class, I often sit and write, too. I'm not sure if it's because I'm easily bored or want to keep my creative energy going; but I have sensed that over the semester, students come to respect my direction about writing -- possibly because they have actually seen me writing. And one noted in an evaluation that she appreciated that I didn't ask students to do anything that I myself wouldn't do. On occasion I use my own in-class writing for critique. Students enjoy hearing that I never write a good introductory paragraph for my articles and columns on the first try. Although I am careful not to use my students as my unpaid editing board, I do selectively share short pieces of my work when appropriate. This not only gives students into my own writing style (which could affect their own writing), but also helps them start to see writing as a process rather than an event. And that with practice, anyone can write well.

12. Selectively intervene. It's tempting to believe that undergraduates will come to instructors when they have academic problems. Yet even those who have attended orientations and joined freshman-interest-groups may be unable to take the simple advice to get help before it is too late. Students may put off a conference until they are not only failing the course, but it is too late to take positive action. Although only a small percentage of my student population may actually be described as "underachievers," I sense that students who do not do well on the first few assignments tend to follow this map of inaction. A great number of students who go to the university where I currently teach are also the first generation to attend college. This puts additional pressure on instructors to try to selectively intervene when students are doing poorly in class. Although it may seem like wasted time for many students, I require at least one or two conferences with each student during the semester; this is the perfect chance for a discussion that begins, "What are you finding most difficult in this course?" Or "What are you working on now?" This appointment also includes a conversation about the student's current grade. I also use grading software that allows me to print out current grades-to-date for each student. I distribute these short, but revealing reports to students approximately every three weeks during the semester -- along with a graded major project. This allows students to see how they stand academically in my course. These reports also list a student's attendance, specific dates I've listed them as tardy or absent (excused or not), and how that affects their grade. For students who have not yet met with me in my office, this can help them actually see how their attendance is affecting their grade now -- rather than later when it may be too late to correct behavior.

13. Encourage use of technology. Although I don't allow the use of PDAs, electronic dictionaries, or other electronics in class, I do show students how to do online as well as traditional research. First, I not only lecture, but also give an assignment or two to students to expand their knowledge of how to find actual books and journals at our university library. I then do a few short lessons (with a follow-up assignment) on how to use the university's free online databases. Even though students may have been using this source for months, they don't always know how to search well -- or where to search for the best articles. Although I prefer that students use a mix of traditional research and online research, I realize that many will prefer the easiest route; my job may be to show them how to avoid the most inaccurate forms of online research or easy-to-find, but superficial information sources (such as online dictionaries or encyclopedias), and get to the deeper, more accurate research (such as that found in academic journals and books, trade publications, and other in-depth sources). They also see examples of research papers that use the more accurate forms of research -- and how this stacks up against a paper that relies on informal, less credible sources.

14. Check your own agenda. A literature professor at a state university turned my education around. Although he taught his own techniques for ferreting out metaphor and meaning in short stories and novels, he also rewarded original thinking from students in- and out-of-class. I found myself challenged by the topic and the man behind the podium. It was obvious that his agenda was to teach to inform -- and encourage critical thinking. Today, when I find myself frustrated with a class's performance, I ask myself "Am I teaching to inform?" Or am I hoping to create drones of myself to parrot back my own ideas? Careful to reward original thinking -- even if it does not agree with my own -- is a way to open up a classroom discussion. When we describe intellectual freedom at the university level, we might consider students as well as ourselves. This freedom, of course, does not mean a freedom not to do assignments; but suggests that instructors allow well-supported ideas other than their own in the classroom and on paper.

15. Don't rule by personality. It's tempting to watch Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society and want to be that kind of professor. However, I have a few concerns with this idealized portrait. One, we are not all Robin Williams. Two, most of us would find that his form of teaching negates the curriculum and although students may be inspired and learn something, they certainly would not be prepared for the graduate-level course in that subject. When I remember the professors who inspired me most in high school, community college, and universities, one quality shines -- the subject they taught was the star, not the specific instructor. Yes, Mr. Hansen in 10th grade was a funny, thoughtful sort of man. I even liked the way he would stroll through the classroom, sitting on the edge of an empty seat, letting his long legs stretch out in the row as he lectured. But what I remember most about Mr. Hansen was history. He taught history as if it were a living thing. When I was in his classroom, I could feel battles being waged, riots surging, and courtrooms delivering sentences that changed the world. That was the beauty of this inspired instructor. He brought the subject to life without imposing too much of his personality on the student population. At the university where I currently teach, over 70 percent  of my students complained that strong personalities got in the way of teaching. One student said that when an instructor's strong personality didn't invite discussion, "it makes [me] not want to work hard in the class." 

16. Concentrate on those who want to achieve. In the end, we are educating, not "edu-taining." Switching teaching methods, recognizing student opinion, and reaching out to underachievers are techniques I want to keep using. Yet, in the end, undergraduate students are responsible for their own education. Even the few high-school students who enter my class through dual-enrollment programs are, essentially, being recognized as adults. By setting and adhering to class policies that support attainable goals, I help students recognize that their actions have consequences -- sometimes very positive ones. When I give in to student demand without checking with colleagues to discover what is reasonable, I am enabling my student population. And this is the group that will go into business and politics later in life. What will I have taught them? That if the requirements are too demanding, those higher up will simply lessen expectations until they are met? That if life circumstances are difficult, one simply needs to ask for accommodation again and again -- without consideration for the resources that are available or the others that need those resources? That life is a scoreboard -- with special favors to be cultivated and cashed, resulting in a convoluted foundation that encourages favoritism and nepotism? That it is acceptable to award all who make the effort, whether or not they succeed? Cynics will respond that what we instructors do does not matter; that in the end, the world is corrupt and arbitrary. Yet I choose to believe that setting students on their feet believing that the world judges them on their work rather than their intentions will be an asset. That giving them credit for good research, original thinking, and the desire to go above-and-beyond what is required will help them in their chosen careers. I hope that our students will move beyond thinking inside the classroom to the outside world. That in succeeding in corporate boardrooms, think tanks, and even at podiums in classrooms like this, they will consider the values that previous generations have held close -- and thoughtfully, sometimes painfully, develop their own standards for living a productive life.      


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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