Saturday, April 3, 2010

Motivated Students and Motivating Students

Some of my students are extremely serious, motivated, and smart. I frequently see the same hard-working students at lunch or dinner arguing over some physics problem, or doing some calculation while eating. I’m very impressed with these students, they are a pleasure to teach, and as one might expect, these are exactly the students who have been doing extremely well on their exams.

Even some of the students who arrived at Oxford with an educational deficit (perhaps having gone to a not-so-good high school) have a fair chance of catching up and doing well if they are smart and really work like crazy. Alas, in some cases, if a deficit is too large to begin with, it may be too great to overcome. Nonetheless, I’ve already seen some driven students come here with a philosophy of “succeed or die trying” (or as they said in Sparta "e tan e epitas", with your shield or on it!”). A few of them have pulled off what can only be described as exam miracles.

Then there are a few students of the opposite variety: those who are not working hard enough and are barely scraping by. My initial philosophy upon coming here was to treat them as adults: If they want to waste their education, they are fully entitled to do so. However, it soon became clear that this was not going to be an acceptable policy. To begin with, poorly performing students are considered a bad reflection on a college (and inevitably on the professors that teach them). Secondly, one must remember that much of the funding for education in the UK comes from the government (Oxford was essentially free to UK citizens until just a few years ago –-- now it is absurdly cheap [by US standards], but not free). As such, allowing students to waste their education, and hence UK taxpayer money, is frowned upon. Finally, academic competition between colleges is fierce (as measured by the famous “Norrington Table” – the subject of much discussion around here – I’ll save that for another post). The colleges that perform well by this measure are then able to recruit better students, and then perform even better in future years. At any rate, the upshot is that part of my job is to squeeze the best performance possible out of my students.

A few weeks ago, over a late night beer, I asked a few of my more experienced colleagues how they get their students to work harder. Although answers varied, at least one took a “no-holds-barred” approach: Students worked… or else. Basically this professor viewed it as his job to whip the students into shape, whether or not they appreciated him later for doing so. It turns out that most of his students do actually appreciate him for doing this (although I’m sure there will be a few who don’t like this kind of military approach to matters).

Somewhere along the line most students run into a strict but fair teacher who commands total respect and demands the impossible. In the end, students frequently like and remember fondly these demanding teachers for forcing them to learn. For me, perhaps, it was Mr. Fraction at Twelve Corners Middle School, who was not a math teacher, but an English teacher. He gave me detention every day for a month until I could improve my handwriting to the point where it was readable. I’m not going to say that my handwriting is now particularly legible, but without him, probably even I would not even be able to decipher my own scrawl.

I’m not sure if I have it in me to be one of these taskmasters, I find it difficult to chew out students even when they deserve it. But perhaps slowly, as I get more annoyed with students who are not performing as well as I know they could, I might morph into Mr. Fraction.

Comments encouraged from profs or other teachers who might be reading this…


adam rosen said...

Hi Steve, I'll comment on the legacy of Mr. Fraction. Terrin is my oldest and she is in Middle School and I wish she had one, just one, teacher, in any subject thank you, who would be that teacher who demanded the impossible. The trick of that is to be happy with what you get once you know that the student has worked their hardest and truly stretched their potential.
A guy like you--well you had no shortage of ability in school, but Mr. F saw where you needed to grow so he pushed you. That's so unusual.
So are you wondering if you have the stones to be that guy for your students? I can relate--my teachers talk about this legendary former principal here, he's been gone for ten years, but they still talk about him as an inspiring administrator who demanded the best from teachers and made sure they demanded the best from students. I have to push them sometimes and it's not very comfortable. Then when I push to hard I fear union grievances! On the other hand, most of them do an awesome job and they want to be pushed.
Can you see yourself being the guy who pushes them harder then they have ever been pushed before? Why not be that guy for these students? Its true that you didn't get where you are on your brains alone--you had teachers who pushed you--and coaches too! So why expect less?
We certainly see this at our elementary school--kids who have trouble reading or learning math need to push themselves harder if they are even to keep up with their classmates.
Not sure if I've inspired you or just inspired myself.

Steve said...

Adam: thanks for the comment, for the inspiration and for the challenge. It is a tall order to live up to, but I do it. I will demand more of my students -- I will become Mr. Fraction!

"I shall not cease, from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand"

--- William Blake

Steve said...

Then again... some of our classmates would claim that Mr. Fraction was gratuitously strict to the point of being a jerk sometimes. At least one of our friends ended up so disturbed by him that their parents demanded they be transferred out to some other teacher.

I suppose, as with all things, some amount of moderation and wisdom is required. A good example from our youth was Ms. Withers (if you remember her). She was demanding and very inspiring, but no one would ever call her a jerk.

Alan said...

1) I don't remember anyone ever saying Ms. Withers was particularly demanding, just very entertaining in her teaching style.
2) Just for the record, Mr. Fraction mellowed out an awful lot by the time my year had him. I think he stopped giving F's to everyone constantly, but still managed to inspire a few students here and there. So there may have been more to his teaching powers than just the Fraction F.

Alan said...

1)I don't remember anyone ever saying that Ms. Withers was particularly demanding, but just incredibly entertaining.
2) Mr. Fraction mellowed an awful lot by the time my year had him (I didn't), but he stopped giving out the Fraction F all the time. He apparently still managed to inspire a few students, so there may have been more to his magic than just giving out a lot of F's and detentions.

Susanne said...

I remember several teachers who operated on the principle of fear (right, now's the time to bring out your prejudices about German education) -- like, you knew that at the beginning of each lesson some randomly picked student would face an oral examination in front of the whole class. Although this made some of us kids work hard, I'm not sure that's the way to go...

Some undergrads don't work hard a) Because they never had to earlier and aren't used to it; they're smart and school was always easy. b) Because they are bored (though smart) and simply don't find their courses sufficiently exciting (who's to blame them..). I know examples of students who barely scraped by during their undergrad years -- but turned into superstars the moment they reached a level where things got truly exciting, and they realized they actually needed to work. Question is, how do we identify those students, and how do we inspire and challenge them to start studying. Well, you actually have one-on-one tutorials (not just a huge, grey mass like many of us), so perhaps you manage to spot a few such cases and feed them some extra material to trigger their interest.

Then of course there will always be some lost cases who happened to pick the wrong subject. (Although... how do they slip through your elaborate admission procedures?!). Not sure threats or bribes will really help those. But perhaps the first law of pedagogy still applies to them to some extent: Students will do whatever they think is immediately relevant to their exams. So if you want them to learn something, get them convinced they need those skills for the exam... (Although that requires a certain freedom to design the contents and format of your exam, which I guess you don't have.)

Annoyingly, Teaching & Learning is not an exact science :-)

tg said...

"...Mr. Fraction at Twelve Corners Middle School, who was not a math teacher ..."

Chuckle :)