Teaching Tip: Students who could be doing better

With about a month left before finals (!)  we all hope that  students are moving smoothly through our courses, mastering objectives, turning in excellent work and getting more and more engaged with our disciplines.  If all of your students are in this category, you are hereby requested to submit a blog post and let us know how you did it!  The rest of us, read on.

Take a look at your students.  Are some of them failing to master the course content even though they are trying?  What about students who are passively coming to class but not really doing anything else? Do some of them seem to be just going through the motions but putting in minimum effort?  Do yo have students who breeze through the course requirements with little difficulty, but also with little sense of engagement?  And, how many seem to be in the optimal learning zone – coming to class regularly, appearing to be engaged most of the time and turning in good quality work?

If many or most of your students are in the last category, that’s a good indicator that your approach is on target.  But, what about those students who aren’t “in the zone”?  Is there anything you can do, especially this late in the semester?

One way to look at all of these students is through the lens of motivation. Research suggests that humans are motivated by three factors:

  • Autonomy  — the urge to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery — the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose – the yearning to have our work mean something.

How do these factors play out in with students?

Trying but not succeeding: These students are motivated now, but their failure to achieve mastery has negative implications for their current success and even worse, their future motivation. If most of your students are in this category, you will want to look closely at your syllabus and class activities.   Are you expecting students to do something that they have never been taught to do?  Are you overestimating the skills that your students had when they entered the class?  Overestimation is particularly likely with regard to students’ reading and writing skills.  Many expert instructors also forget how much students don’t know about their discipline.  You don’t necessarily need to lower your expectations, but if the leap is too broad and there are no handholds, students will just fall into the pit.  So, if most of the class is struggling, providing more support during class and more structure outside of class can make it possible for students to rise to your expectations.  The feeling of mastery they earn will help them persevere in other challenging courses.  If you are at a loss for how to do this, please contact the CTE – we can help!

If there are just a few students in your class who are trying hard but struggling, you can meet their specific needs through strategies like referrals to the LRC, holding study groups during your office hours or other individual support.  You may notice patterns as you talk to your struggling students – maybe transfers are missing essential skills or there is some characteristic that successful students have that the struggling students need to acquire.  Finding these patterns can help you prevent the same problems from recurring.

Still in class but not producing: These “passively failing” students frustrate and confuse us. They come to class and may even participate but they don’t complete assignments. Sometimes they come in at the end of the semester begging for extra credit once they realize that they are in trouble.  Passively failing students all have their own reasons, but it can be helpful to think about the dimensions of motivation with them as well.  Often these students don’t understand the purpose of an assignment or a course (or a college education).  They may fear they cannot master the content (so why try?), or they may not feel any sense of control or participation in their learning.  They also may have personal or family issues that make them feel a lack of autonomy, mastery or purpose that then bleeds over into their academic life.

To reach passively failing students, you need to get their attention and then try to figure out what is going on with each of them.  A clear warning signal like a mid-term grade, a flag in Starfish or a note on a paper is a good place to start, followed by an individual meeting.  Once you have a better sense of what is going on, referrals to the Academic Success Center or the Counseling Center may be in order if there’s a serious problem that’s beyond your capability to address.  Sometimes however, these students respond to faculty interest and support.  For example,  first generation college students, who make up around 30% of our undergraduates,  may be struggling with purpose and mastery issues.  They have made the decision to attend college, but they have no role models for how to be a successful student or even a clear idea of why they are here.  They may be lacking essential social and academic skills that we take for granted in the college environment.  This is a time when some friendly, supportive conversation can help a student understand their purpose, believe that they can master your course and feel that they have some control over their academic careers and indeed, their lives.

Just good enough: Students (like faculty) are strategic.  We are all crunched for time and energy, and we all make decisions about how much effort to expend on a given project.  What do you spend most of your time on?  If you are like me, you finish the things you have to do (but don’t like) at a “good enough” level, to leave maximum time for the interesting stuff.  So, how can we get students to classify at least some of our class assignments as the “interesting stuff”?  Again, we come back to purpose, mastery and autonomy. Perhaps these students don’t understand the significance of your assignments and can’t relate them to any of their prior knowledge.  It’s not a waste of class time to discuss assignments thoroughly, especially those assignments whose point is not obvious to students.  Helping students understand how assignments help students achieve course objectives, develop as thinkers and problem solvers and prepare for more advanced work can heighten a sense of purpose and mastery. Or, perhaps students are not working harder because they don’t feel like they own their learning.   Giving students choices also helps them develop more of a sense of ownership and autonomy.

Breezing by: It’s tempting to ignore these students – they’re doing well and you have lots of other things to do. But these are solid students that we want to retain and if they are too bored and disengaged they are likely to go elsewhere.  And beyond that rather self-serving reason, I think we owe it to these students to support the development of their talents.  If you have quite a few “breezers”, it’s time to look at your expectations again, this time from the other end.  Maybe the entire class needs more challenge.  If you just have a few, you can use the ideas of mastery and autonomy to help challenge your top students.  Put several strong students together to work on a more challenging problem.  Consider allowing students to “test out” of a course segment, waiving lower level work that the student is clearly able to perform and substituting an independent project of their interest.

I know some instructors feel that motivating students is not their job, but I can’t agree.  If you can stimulate student curiosity and enthusiasm by enhancing their feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose, you will be happier with your students’ accomplishments and they will be closer to being lifelong learners.   I guess the bottom line for me here is that really looking at your students’ performance, identifying patterns and digging a bit beyond the surface can help you target your energy where it will be most effective and has the potential to really change the trajectory of a significant number of students.

What are some of the other signs and patterns you look for in your classes?  What motivates your students?  What are you seeing that I’ve left out?



2 Responses

  1. I’m unsure to what “motivation research” the essay refers. The business management motivation research would not support the top 3 motivators presented when applied to working business people. It could also be disputed if you are looking at the research on cross-cultural differences in motivation. A thought provoking essay, as usual.

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