The first part of this article spent time discussing some of the less motivated student personality types I have encountered through the years, as well as providing some context to the learning environment. Distance learning (DL) presents a unique set of challenges for instructors ranging from the basics like methodologies to interact with students, to motivating students to keep pace with the curriculum and help them balance the external challenges like family and work issues; student types being part of the equation. We already discussed “After the Fact Jack,” “Intermittent Irene,” “The Winger,” and “Coat Tail Tom,” so it’s time to explore some of the other types.
The Survivor: The “Survivor” comes in several different forms, from the student that struggles through the year but is willing to do what extra it takes to make the grade; to the student that is just lucky to graduate. The former makes you proud to see them willing to go the extra mile to gain extra points, learn the material, and demonstrate their proficiency in the concepts. This “Survivor” recognizes their weaknesses, will work to overcome the hurdles in front of them, and will give 100 percent of their effort to complete the course. The latter just has the good fortune to have a grade point average high enough to meet the minimum threshold to graduate. This “Survivor” is normally on academic probation, has a combination of some of the other personalities previously discussed, and can attribute the majority of their high marks in the class to group projects. Poor marks do not affect this “Survivor,” and they often ignore offers of extra credit; minimal effort is good enough for them.
Initially the challenge with the “Survivor” will be to determine which category they fall into. The first type of “Survivor” is easy to recognize; they will approach you and ask for extra resources and assignments to learn. All you need to do is to feed them information, resources, techniques, and other helpful material to help them improve and make the grade, and they will do the rest. Conversely, the latter “Survivor” (lucky to graduate) won’t use the resources available at their disposal and is much less willing to take advantage of anything extra you might provide. They will accept poor performance (grades) and continue to trod along, . even though they precariously balance on the edge of failure. Yet somehow in the end, they make it through; they survive.
The MouseLion: The “MouseLion” feels they do not have as much experience as their classmates. When the material starts to breach into unfamiliar territory, the “MouseLion” second guesses themselves; questioning their ability and feel behind their peers from the onset. Often, they want to quit. After some encouragement and reassurances that all they need to do is read the materials and apply the concepts the best they can, the MouseLion stays. And reads . . . and learns . . . and applies the concepts, and actively participates in group work, and quickly becomes a high performing member in a group that once intimidated them. A great sight to see. The mouse is gone and the lion emerges!
The biggest challenge with the “MouseLion” is determining if you have one (or some), and whom it (or they) might be. The rest is just encouragement and mentorship. On occasion, the “MouseLion” will just decide they cannot complete the course and want to quit. Further questioning will reveal they are not comfortable with the material and are intimidated that others have more experience with it. What they often do not realize, is that it is new material to everyone in the class, and while some may have more experience, no one is at any level of mastery. Tell them that up front, and then provide some encouragement to proceed. You will need more than a “you can do it.” Provide a level of comfort and support. Once they jump off the fence and commit, they do well; often better than the experienced peers that once intimidated them. On the occasion they do not vocalize a desire to quit, you will need to pick them out in the crowd. They are often the quiet types that prefer to be in the background; again intimidated. However, the same techniques above will help bring them out of their shell.
The Sponge: The “Sponge” is thirsty for knowledge, products, tactics, techniques and procedures, and any other tool they can add to their toolbox for the future. The “Sponge” realizes that there is a lot to gain from the material and wants to get better. You need to keep in mind that one may not start out as a “Sponge.” Often the transformation is due to the realization of the material’s relevance to a future job. Once the “Sponge” realizes the practical need for the material, their interest grows exponentially. Then, you have their rapt attention. They ask probing questions, challenge assumptions, make sure they understand information, and often become a referent leader.
The challenge as an instructor is to be able to feed the “Sponge”! The “Sponge” has already soaked up all the material available to them from the course; the challenge is to provide more. Through the years, one tends to build up a library of reference material along with other great products. Send whatever you have that is germane to the student’s needs. Use your peers as resources as well to help feed the “Sponge.”
The Workhorse: Every group has at least one “Workhorse”; that student that is always willing to go the extra mile to help the group, volunteer outside their lane to help with research, consolidating slides, or any other void that needs filling. . There does not appear to be any one specific skill set from the “Workhorse.” Some display a depth of knowledge in several areas, while others have some extensive experience in one arena, but they all appear to have a common drive and dedication to the success of the group. The “Workhorse” will find a niche where they can help the group; they will help in areas no one else is willing to; they will fill in anywhere and everywhere the group needs help. The “Workhorse” does not appear to be the student that has nothing else to do, and often the opposite appears to be the case. They seem to have the full complement of daily challenges as the rest of the class with jobs, school, and family, and they attend to all with equal vigor. The “Workhorse” will manifest early . . . just make sure to put them in the stable and make them take a breather occasionally.
There always seems to be several “Workhorses” in the group, so the challenge is to avoid the temptation to keep them as the leads in the stagecoach team. Make sure to give them a break and put them in the swing (second) or wheeler (third) position of the horse team. Remember they will need a break, but just as important is the need to provide everyone that learning opportunity.
I covered a gamut of student types that I have observed through the years of instructing in a distance-learning environment, and the characteristics run the spectrum of performers. Each of the types is an added ingredient to the class, and as instructors, we need to work to balance these ingredients to get the best “flavor” we can and achieve the desired outcomes of the curriculum. The challenge as an instructor is what kind of approach to take for each of these types. Sometimes we need to give our “Workhorse” a rest and have “Tom” step up and pull some weight; yet there does not appear to be any one solution to any of these types.
Lieutenant Colonel (R) Jack T. Judy is an assistant professor at the Army University’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC). He has taught the advance operations course for the department of distance education for eight years, and in the department of logistics and resource operations for residence class several years prior to that. He currently holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Social Science, a Masters of Arts in Organizational Management, and attended the Army Force Management Course.