As an educator, I have an embarrassing confession: When I was younger, I was an incredibly difficult student.
Read something? … On a good day, maybe I’d do some skimming.
Prepare ahead of time? … Nah, another student will do the talking.
Pay attention in class? … What for? Why does this even matter to me?!
There within that last cringe-worthy question lies the problem. For anyone who has been at the front of a classroom, you know that one of the greatest obstacles to learning is student apathy. To help overcome this barrier, I recommend the “motivation step,” a brief, introductory discussion designed to articulate why the material is significant to a student’s real-world success.
In the academic community, student apathy stems from various causes. One primary reason is students have dozens of different obligations and consequently must prioritize their time. On a regular basis, they are subconsciously selecting which responsibilities deserve their focus, and which do not.
Hence, the painful truth—if they aren’t prepared or engaged in our class, then maybe at least part of that’s on us.
Admittedly, the first reaction is to take the easy route and quickly write off these students: “If they don’t want to learn, that’s their problem!” The reality, however, is that inaction is rarely a case of animosity toward us or our subject. As young adults, the task of properly prioritizing academic responsibilities is incredibly daunting. Many students are simply lost.
That’s where we come in.
As educators we are also leaders; and the best leaders help guide people when they are lost. With far more education and experience, it may be glaringly obvious to us the significance of what we teach and how all the different parts fit together. For our students, however, these connections may not be so clear and they’re often left wondering why we’re asking them to do certain things.
So, what can be done to fix this problem? We must promote student interest in the material, early and often: “being interested in a topic is a mental resource that enhances learning” (Harackiewicz & Hulleman 2009, 43). As a step in the right direction, I recommend including a two-three minute motivation step in most lessons. Simply put, a motivation step is an educator’s conscious effort to take a moment near the beginning of each class to explain why the day’s material is meaningful to the students. Not just because it may be on an exam, but rather because it will have real life, lasting consequences. It is a practice that immediately addresses that elephant in the room: Why the material matters.
To implement this, I take considerable time reflecting on how I am going to sell the lesson to the class. Essentially, I imagine myself as the subject’s hype-man, answering a variety of questions: What is useful about this material? How does this relate to them? Why should they be excited to learn this?
As an example, on the first day teaching the First Amendment, I premise the lesson with the following dialogue:
I want you all to imagine living in a country where it is illegal to speak negatively about the government. How would you feel when the government starts passing laws that are detrimental to you and your family … laws that negatively impact your happiness? What would you do? (Engage in class discussion, parse out the difficulties of being unable to speak out against one’s government).
These are difficulties that people actually face in the world today … the inability to vocalize when they feel oppressed. How fortunate are we to be in a country with laws that prevent this?! Olivia, if you had an issue with the way our government’s acting, what would you do? Brendan, what about you? (Discuss Olivia and Brendan’s responses).
For the next handful of classes, we are going to delve into your right to free speech. We are going to analyze what you can say, and what you still can’t say even with these protections. We are going to equip you all with the knowledge necessary to know when you have a voice … today, tomorrow, and throughout the rest of your lives!
While I can’t be sure that these initial hype-sessions reach every student, I can report with certainty an added energy enveloping the classroom—lackadaisical stares turn to intrigued gazes. Within the first few minutes, I have initiated a dialogue that they want to be a part of because I have made it abundantly clear why it matters to them. This creates greater interest, greater conversation, and most importantly—greater learning.
When you have an entire semester worth of classes, it can be easy to get into the habit of diving straight into the required content you need to cover. In doing so, however, it is also easy for students to lose sight of the bigger picture. Instead of falling into this trap, remind yourself to be relentless about relating the material to the students’ future success beyond the classroom. This repetition will act as a constant reminder that there is value in your teachings. Over the span of a semester, this can make an enormous difference to a student’s motivation to properly prioritize your class.
Harackiewicz, Judith & Chris Hulleman, 2009. “The Importance of Interest: The Role of Achievement Goals and Task Values in Promoting the Development of Interest.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4:42–52 (Volume 4, Issue 1)
Major Wolfgang S. Weber is an assistant professor of Law at the US Air Force Academy.